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  Issue No 17 Official Organ of LaborNet 11 June 1999  





Survey Misses the Point

By Dermott Browne

Last week's attempt by the Australian newspaper to rank trade unions contained some fundamental flaws.


Wendy Caird with Members

The Australian newspaper recently published a controversial article nominating its choice of Australia's best union. The story was based on a survey of unions conducted by the newspaper, and created a great deal of discussion both before and after its publication. One critic of the survey was Wendy Caird, National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

Many of Australia major unions expressed concerns about the survey and the way it was conducted.

From our point of view there were several major problems with the concept and the way it was carried out. Firstly we didn't like the idea of creating an artificial contest between unions. Generally we work co-operatively and a contest sets up winners and losers. And it doesn't make sense to compare organisations which have quite different jobs to do. Some are working in a sector that is relatively easy to organise and service and others are battling just to get in the door.

We also felt that The Australian's methodology was not very professional. The report was based on a single interview with an official of each union. You can't begin to understand a big and complex organisation with just a 30 minute discussion.

And the questions asked were very much based on The Australian's values, not those of the union movement. So we felt judgements would be made by corporate Australia's standards, while our objectives are really very different. Just one example was a question about whether the union is a "good corporate citizen". Many unions are very active internationally with their counterparts in our region, yet we felt The Australian was looking for union support for the Olympics or the local footie team.

Perhaps most importantly, we were very concerned that The Australian asked employers what they thought of unions, but didn't ask any workers.

As Doug Cameron from the AMWU so poetically put it, the survey was "beauty contest unionism, where the bosses are the judges and the workers go naked."

But surely there is some value in this sort of focus on unions?

Well, we were happy to see some positive comments about unions in the article. But we did feel that the Australian had missed an opportunity to write a thoughtful and well researched story..

In your opinion, what questions would have led to a more effective story?

What was lacking was any critical investigation into the real circumstances of unions today. There's plenty of publicity about our membership decline, but little analysis of its cause, so it's assumed to be about "relevance" or "performance". While this is in part true, there are some other very real issues. For example, the structural changes in the workforce which have led to massive job losses in the traditionaly unioinised industries. In the Federal public sector, we've lost 100,000 jobs in 3 years, and that accounts proportionately for most of our membership loss.

The new industrial laws and the ensuing climate make it harder for workers to be in unions. In our sector, it's even harder to pay your fees! And the legislation puts lots of hurdles in the path of unions trying to do their job. The government is not interested in a level playing field, it wants to provide the advantage to employers, and it's doing that shamelessly through legislation.

You mentioned declining membership, sorts of things can be done to reverse that?

Like all other unions in Australia, we have a number of strategies in place, which we're monitoring and updating. We're also looking at other unions, other organisations and overseas for best practices.

We have changed our structure and our financial management, so members are in control of their part of the union and our funds are directed to our priorities. We have a strategic plan and of course, recruitment is our top priority. We are regularly polling and market testing issues and approaches with our members. The issues are different from the past; work overload, and job security are the big ones and we are bargaining about the things that matter to our members, not just about wages.

Unions are now well and truly plugged into new technology and are communicating through the internet. We are constantly looking for better ways to communicate and run campaigns. And we know that community support is hard to organise but an important part of winning some campaigns.

The way unions do things is changing too. We are outside buildings handing out pamphlets more often than we might have been in the past. We are lobbying politicians and setting up media opportunities. We are using paid advertising to potential members in new areas like Call Centres.

We will do whatever it takes, because if we all want a fair caring society - unionism is a job that needs to be done.

For a defence of the survey, see Michael Bachelard's Guest Report


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 17 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Class Consciousness
Long-time ALP member Michael Thomson has thrown a few grenades with a new book arguing that middle class trendies have taken over the ALP.
*  Legal: Reith¹s AWAs Dealt a Blow
ASU v Electrix rules that AWAs can't be a take it or leave it proposition.
*  Unions: Survey Misses the Point
Last week's attempt by the Australian newspaper to rank trade unions contained some fundamental flaws.
*  History: The Light on the Hill
Fifty years after his seminal address, Ben Chifley's words still ring true -- and still challenges Labor.
*  International: Child Labour: Kerala’s Recipe
Of India’s 55 million slave children, not one is to be found in the state of Kerala, in the south of the sub-continent.
*  Review: Bazza Mckenzie Holds His Own
Tony Moore on perhaps the greatest Australian movie ever made.
*  Women: Equal Pay - We've Come A Long Way
Thirty years have passed since women around Australia raised their fists in victory at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission's historic equal pay for equal work decision.
*  Activists: Throwing Off the Chains
Thirty years ago, Zelda D'Aprano was so incensed by the lack of progress in achieving pay parity that she twice chained herself to public buildings in Melbourne.
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, a summary of industrial news for trade unions.

»  RAAF To Bomb Aussie Jobs
»  Budget Blue Looms as Carr Poohs Social Audit
»  Workers Choose: Key Ballot in Finance Sector
»  Revealed: Bosses Bash Unions
»  Shoot the Messenger: New Surveillance Fears
»  Surfs Up! Second Wave on Horizon
»  Local Music on Radio - Make it the Law!
»  Doctors Out of Patience With Long Hours
»  GST Creeps Dud Battling Workers
»  Wanted: Someone to Fight the Uglies

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Guest Report
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  US Fan Mail
»  Chippo Politics Tunes In
»  GST Rally june 21
»  Employment Conference for Newcastle

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