The union movement has seen a surge in new members and organising since the COVID-19 lockdowns, which exposed the downsides of casualisation and precarious modern work as well as significant power imbalances between corporations and workers.
“Since the start of the lockdown period, the ACTU has seen a 200-300% increase in join applications,” a spokesman for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) told Voice of Action.
“The NSWNMA [New South Wales Nurses and Midwives’ Association] alone has added 2000 members since the start of the crisis.”
Godfrey Moase, executive director of the United Workers Union (UWU), told Voice of Action that applications to join UWU had “at least doubled” and he had heard similar reports from other unions.
He said the relationships forming and education happening now would result in an “increase in the rate of struggle” over the next few years.
“Insofar as the system is getting harsher as well and people are responding to that I think there will be an uptick in militancy, I just don’t know how far it will go and how it will play out,” Moase told Voice of Action.
Coles and other warehouse workers had already successfully organised to win changes to physical distancing and hygiene standards, while casino workers won special leave.
UWU national secretary Tim Kennedy said on a recent online forum, hosted by Green Left & Socialist Alliance, that workers at 10 sites, including a Coles warehouse west of Melbourne, walked off the job.
“For 8 hours we held that place up … the Coles response was to try to get members of the main political parties to ring the union … our view is that workers won on that day and we weren’t going to be intimidated,” said Kennedy.
“They won the necessary things they needed to have in terms of spacing, hand sanitiser, time to wash their hands … we flowed those standards throughout the entire sector.”
Unions have been innovating by using tools like Zoom to conduct digital rallies. ACTU secretary Sally McManus has been imploring union members at these gatherings to tell non-members about how campaigns by the union movement have been integral to winning protections for workers, such as the Jobkeeper wage subsidy program.
Kennedy said one positive of the crisis was being able to speak to “tens of thousands of people directly that we wouldn’t have otherwise before this crisis”, and the movement was building.
“This is our time to really put pressure; we know that the government and conservative forces never waste a crisis, they’re getting geared up to eat into workplace rights, to move the cost of this crisis on to individuals,” said Kennedy.
“The system in which we operate is fundamentally brittle, it’s cooked, it’s cactus, it’s fundamentally conked out. We need to find ways to organise to make sure workers once again have themselves represented at the centre of political debate in this country.”
Going into the crisis, organised labour was at its weakest point since the early 20th century – union density has dropped to the low teens and under 10% in the private sector.
The labour movement built its strength in the 20th century in the industrialised world where growth and capital investment were high and there was a strong demand for labour.
Union density and as a result, union power, began to drop heavily in Australia since the 1970s and 1980s, as heavily unionised industries such as metals, car manufacturing, and textiles and footwear went into decline.
The new jobs that were created in service industries like food and retail were less unionised.
Governments, beholden to the corporate elite, have made it difficult for unions, with a strait jacket of regulation that makes it harder for workers to organise and exert power in the workplace. Compulsory unionism (aka: closed shops) was also outlawed.
Union leaders themselves, navigating the changes in the global economy like trade, have sometimes shot the movement in the foot, such as the 1983 Prices and Incomes Accord, which served to suppress wages and industrial action.
But Moase said the current economic crisis had exposed the inherent weaknesses of neoliberal capitalism and more workers were beginning the struggle for a better future.
“Workers are questioning the very fundamentals of the system and seeing the state step in to deal with a crisis kind of reveals that corporations themselves were not all powerful and not the source of all value and innovation,” he said.
“I think that popular struggle for deep change is what’s required and that will take the forms of mass protests, of strikes, some enaggement in the political system and prefigurative projects like cooperatives – that all needs to happen within the context of a socialist movement.”
The ACTU spokesman said working people will always be stronger together, especially during a pandemic, and since the start of the crisis workers had pulled together in their unions to demand support and protection.
“While we still have lots to accomplish, that campaign has resulted in historic levels of support for working people, including a national wage subsidy program,” said the ACTU spokesman.
“This pandemic has shown that the rates of insecure work in Australia – which unions have been campaigning against for years – need to be urgently addressed. As part of the recovery process we want to see the rate of insecure work halved.”