|Issue No 17||11 June 1999|
Michael Batchelard on the Australian's Union Survey
The Australian has been much criticised for daring to conduct its State of the Unions survey, published on the weekend of June 5 and 6, and trying to rank Australia's best unions on a set of criteria.
Predictably the survey has been criticised for the finding that the best union in Australia was the white collar, managerial Association for Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers. It has been criticised for its methodology, for being based on interviews with union leaders (except where they refused to participate). And letters to the editor on the subject have uniformly argued that a union should be judged by its members, not by outsiders.
First it must be said that none of us involved in the survey would argue that it was perfect - as a number of our critics have pointed out it is very difficult to compare unions, as varied as they are in size, industries, coverage, politics, wealth and leadership. But just because it is difficult does not mean it should not be attempted.
Perhaps an academic study, spanning 12 months with thousands of research hours, would have come up with a different (though not necessarily perfect) result. But The Australian is a newspaper, not a university think-tank, and could not conduct such an exercise, nor glean the opinion of every single union member as some of our critics seem to suggest.
We did an immense amount of research. We consulted widely with IR experts before the first interview was even conducted to identify which were the 20 most interesting, most influential, and best unions. We formulated 10 criteria in consultation with these experts to try to measure the unions against each other. These were: membership and recruitment, services, finances, influence, social responsibility, democratic processes, communications to members, stability, how they cope with change, and strategic outlook. All but a handful of unions were comfortable - those most confident with their performance were enthusiastic - about participating in a process that they rightly saw as having significant potential benefits and few downsides for them.
After we had done the interviews and compiled a 35,000-word report, we gave that report to a panel of independent experts (Bob Hawke, George Polites and Gerard Noonan) who narrowed the field to seven outstanding unions. We then brought together four more experts, Garry Weaven, Anna Booth, Fred Chaney and Bert Evans, who between them ranked the seven in order. The whole process took more than four months.
All this dull detail demonstrates that it was no random whim by a journalist that put APESMA at the top, or ranked the others where they ended up. It was, for a newspaper, a long and labour-intensive exercise.
So why did we do it? It seemed to us that pitting unions against each other and ranking them on these criteria was immensely useful. We found out what unions actually do when they are not fighting it out on a picket line or in a court or tribunal. We described how they win pay rises for their members, what services they provide, how they go about recruiting new members, who they cover, how they are adapting to change. When was the last time that happened in the mainstream media? Being ignored is a much greater threat unions these days than receiving public attention. And as each one of our expert panel pointed out, they were much more optimistic about the future of unionism after reading our report than they had been before.
One of the stumbling blocks we encountered was the attitude of the ACTU, which warned some unions about participating in the survey, questioned the methodology, and argued that if we could not do it as an academic exercise, why do it at all? Well, journalists are charged with a responsibility to scrutinise public institutions - we do it all the time with governments, bureaucracies, the armed forces, sporting teams, and we devote pages and pages of business news every day to scrutinising corporations, their share deals, profit results and so on.
Why not unions? Why not a public institution to which a declining but still very substantial 28 per cent of the population pay their hard-earned money in return for certain services? Why the suspicion? Why has the ACTU even refused our offer to print a reply from them in a prominent position?
The union movement clearly feels beleaguered, with 500,000 fewer unionists in 1999 than there were in the mid-1970s. Hostile governments take constant rhetorical and legislative pot-shots at them, employers, buoyed by this hostility, are increasingly unsympathetic, and global forces have changed the economy to the extent that some traditional unions are struggling for relevance.
This is a depressing picture for unions, but it is also fruitful ground for innovation and success. The unions the expert panels identified as the best were uniformly excellent in their efforts in recruitment, service provision and outlook. Oddly enough, they also tended to be those confident enough in their performance to relish the scrutiny and cooperate with our survey.
Other unions could learn from them. What they should not do is bury their heads in the sand hoping to avoid scrutiny, or the ugly realities of the real world.
Michael Batchelard is the Australian's workplace relations writer
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