Unions in from the cold

Australians’ strong opposition to trade unions has changed to mild approval, according to research that says trade unions have “come in from the cold” as political actors.

Over the past 15 years of employment turmoil and industrial restructuring, the number of people who believe unions have too much power has almost halved, from 82 per cent in 1984 to 43 per cent in 1999.

The number of people who believe unions are doing a terrible job or no good at all has dropped from 33 per cent (1987) to 14 per cent (1999).

And 53 per cent believe unions are doing a fairly good, very good or excellent job.

The strongest pro-union attitudes are among top government employees and, in a demographic turnaround, young people have become more sympathetic than older people to trade unions.

Researchers Jonathan Kelley and Mariah Evans have analysed the responses of 1732 people to the 1999-2000 International Social Science Survey Australia.

Their findings have been published across two editions of Australian Social Monitor, the journal of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. The researchers wrote: “Australians have not come to laud trade unions as public-spirited organisations (top ratings remain rare) but many fewer anathematise them as doing a `terrible’ job’.”

This week’s Social Monitor suggests that very high-status government employees such as judges and bureaucratic mandarins might be unusually pro-union because “the absence of a market and of external validation of productivity is a great difficulty for these employees – it enables their bosses to accelerate or stunt their careers on the basis of personal feelings … and offers no curb to envy and spite”.

But junior government workers were not as pro-union as their equivalents in the private sector.

Within the private sector, those who worked for non-profit bodies were more pro-union than those who worked for commercial organisations. The strongest influence on a person’s union attitude remained their parents’ politics.

There was a slight tendency for more-educated people to regard unions more favorably. And young people were significantly more likely than those aged 50 and over to view unions in a positive or neutral light.

An associate professor in management at Monash University, Julian Teicher, said this finding differed from previous studies.

“Historically, most other surveys have suggested that support for unions is strongest in the 45-55 age group,” he said. “This makes you wonder whether unions have had some success in marketing to this younger age group.”

But the remaining findings confirm earlier research that suggested there was a change in public attitudes, Dr Teicher said.

One study found that, “even among those who don’t belong to unions, the majority would have wished to belong to a union”.

First published in The Age.