Is it the end of the line for the trade unions? Membership is at its lowest level ever. Several large trade unions have disgraced themselves through internal conflict, corruption and industrial bullying leading to widespread calls for increased transparency and legal watchdogs.
At the same time, most workers’ real wages are declining, women are still struggling to achieve equal pay and the promise of flexible working conditions remains an illusion. Workplace bullying and sexual harassment remain a daily reality for large numbers of workers. Like other communities, Lower Eyre Peninsula has many toxic workplaces that seriously affect the health and wellbeing of employees.
We live in an increasingly individualist society and many people believe they are sufficiently self-reliant to deal with issues in their own workplaces. In practice, most people keep their heads down and look after ‘number one’ leaving issues that could be resolved through collective action to fester for years.
In my view, the future of unions requires a reorientation of effort from collective bargaining to higher quality support for those individuals experiencing bullying, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Experienced professional mediators and advocates should be recruited for rapid deployment into workplaces in times of trouble and strife. The line between trade unions and employee assistance programs should be increasingly blurred.
Such an approach would not only enhance the individual productivity and health of workers but it would also save employers considerable expense by reducing staff turnover. Reducing turnover costs would release funds for the progressive growth of real wages over time. Increasing goodwill within local businesses by making staff feel more valued and supported would also make local businesses more competitive.
It’s time for the unions to find a new model better suited to current challenges. If they don’t, their traditional role is ripe for disruption.