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ACTU leadership out of touch with reality.

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   The Hon. Peter Reith, MP       Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business       Leader of the House of Representatives       Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600

26 April 2000 61/00


Sharan Borrow has made the outlandish claim that “The union movement has 2 million representatives, that’s the largest representative group in Australia, and that is the union’s and the ACTU’s legitimacy to speak about the issues that concern working families in Australia.”

[Source: The Australian 22/4/00]

She is wrong on all three counts.

The size of union membership has now plunged below the 2 million member mark. At the last snapshot, eight months ago in August 1999, the tally was 1.878 million members and falling. Since annual data was published, the unions have been losing an average 90,000 members per year, or in percentage terms, 2.0% of all employees desert the unions every year. 


The union movement is smaller than a number of other representative groups in society. The Catholic Church has 4.799 million members compared to the unions’ 1.878 million members, while the Anglican Church has 3.909 million members. Health insurance funds represent three times as many Australians as there are union members, with 5.970 million Australians having hospital coverage. Sporting Clubs represent 4.106 million Australians. At 1.87 million members, the NRMA has an equal number of members to the combined total of all union memberships put together, even though the NRMA is a single motoring organisation. 


The annual collapse in union support shows that the workforce does not believe that the union movement, as a whole, is in touch with the aspirations of the community. The latest ABS survey shows that in the private sector only 19.6 per cent of employees were union members, while in small businesses (with less than 10 employees) just 10.5% chose to join a union


Delusion in the ACTU leadership is not confined to Ms Burrow. According to her colleague, the new ACTU Secretary Greg Combet, there is no decline in union membership numbers. But his claim is also not supported by any of the facts.

Laurie Oakes: “You can see though that it looked pretty cosy and that many union members thought that the ACTU put the government ahead of them and that’s one of the reasons so many walked?”

Greg Combet: “Oh, that’s a view that’s around. I don’t know that there’s much to substantiate that many union members left

because of that and that’s one misnomer I think that needs to be cleared up a little bit, this decline in the proportion of the workforce that are in unions, hasn’t actually meant that there’s been a correlating and substantive decline in the number of union members.

“We still have over two million members in trade unions and the key change that’s occurred is that the industries in which unions have traditionally had a lot of members have declined in employment and particularly in the traded goods area that’s exposed to international competition, there’s been massive employment loss and therefore, union membership has declined there.

“At the same time, employment has grown in industries like services and grown very rapidly and far outstripped our effort to recruit people in those areas and that’s why I say that’s a key challenge for us.”

[Source: Sunday Program, 22 August 1999]

As can be seen from the table below, the fall in union support has hit both the proportion of union members in the workforce, as well as the raw numbers of union members. Mr Combet is not in touch with the facts.

 The Declining Union Membership:

Trade Union Membership Size of Annual Loss


(% of employees)   (000s)

(% of employees) 

1990 2,659.6 40.5% na

na  (no 1989 data)

1992 2,508.8 39.6% na

na  (no 1991 data) 

1993 2,376.9 37.6% 131.9 2.0%

1994 2,283.4 35.0% 93.5 2.6%

1995 2,251.8 32.7% 31.6 2.3%

1996 2,194.3 31.1% 57.5 1.6%

1997 2,110.3 30.3% 84.0 0.8%

1998 2,037.5 28.1% 72.8 2.2%

1999 1,878.2 25.7% 159.3 2.4%

Av. Loss: 90.1 2.0%

[Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Trade Union Members, Cats no. 6325.0 & 6310.0]

Unless the union movement, including the new ACTU leadership, adopts strategies which reflect the realities of 21 st century workplace relations, union membership will continue to fall and the union movement will become even more irrelevant within Australian society.

Please see attached for further information comparing union membership

   The Hon. Peter Reith, MP       Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business       Leader of the House of Representatives       Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600

26 April 2000 61/00


  Union Membership Compared Against Other Community Interests

In 1998 the unions had just over two million members, but over the subsequent year 7.8% of their members deserted them. By August 1999, the dwindling base of trade unionists numbered just 1.878 million.

Unionists are not necessarily representative of mainstream Australia. There are numerous other organisations, sports groups and community activities which attract greater support from the Australian public. Even though unions claim to be relevant to every Australian worker, they have even less support than many leisure and recreational groups.

Motoring Club Members There are now 1.87 million members of the NRMA, Australia’s largest motoring organisation. This means that membership in Australia’s various car clubs is greater than the membership of all Australia’s unions put together . [Source: NRMA Annual Report 1999]

Sports Club Members There are more Australians who participate in sports clubs, than there are union members. According to the ABS, around 4.106 million Australians participate in a club or association which organises sporting or physical activities. Around 3.677 million participate in a club whose primary focus is a sport or physical activity. So even on a conservative estimate, participation in sports clubs is double the participation in unions. Swimming alone has more devotees with about 2.081 million partaking in the activity. Likewise some 3.078 million Australians engage in walking. [ABS, Participation in Sport & Physical Activities 1998-99 (Cat no 4177.0)]

Health Insurance Membership There are more Australians with health insurance coverage than union members. According to the health insurance regulator, there are around 5.970 million Australians with hospital coverage. This is over three times the size of union membership. [Source: Private Health Insurance Administration Council, Quarter ended 31/12/99]

Home Owners With Mortgages There are more Australian home owners with mortgages than union members. According to the ABS website, there are around 1.926 million home owners with mortgages. If we include owners of townhouses and apartments, then there are around 2.130 million Australians owning their own homes with mortgages. This is greater than the level of union membership back in 1997 [Source: ABS, Unpublished Survey of Income & Housing Costs 1997-98]

Library Visitors There are more Australians attending libraries than there are union members attending union meetings. According to the ABS, there are around 5.403 library visitors. This is almost three times the level of union membership. [Source: ABS, Attendance at Selected Cultural Venues, 1995 (Cat no. 4114.0)]

Church Members More Australians belong to a church than belong to unions. According to the last census, the Catholic Church has 4.799 million members, while the Anglican Church has 3.909 million members. [Source: 1996 National Church Life Survey]



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