Who are the real competition for unions?

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Conservative crank Gerard Henderson wrote last year that unions “have nothing to fear from external competition”. Apart from demonstrating that he knows relatively little about the new Fair Work Act, which allows for inter-union disputes over membership coverage, the sentiment he expressed, that unions do not face “traditional”, market based competition, is one I’ve heard expressed by a range of union officials (including senior ones).

The basic idea is that unions recruit members in a competitive-less environment. In most workplaces (but not all), there are not multiple unions seeking to recruit the same people. The only competition for unions, under this paradigm, is the individual’s decision to join or not join.

My contention however, is that unions face high levels of competition from unexpected sources.

Competition is not what an organisation considers to be its competition. Rather, competition is in the mind of the individual. It is a person’s perception or imagining of alternatives.

Once unions start to understand who their competition really is, it can help them develop tactics to address and overcome the competition. It is very difficult to fight against a competitor you aren’t even aware exists.

Competition depends on many things — the industry, the specific workplace, and the nature of the employer.

Here are some competitors that unions may not realise their potential members consider to be alternatives to joining.

The HR Department

Depending on the size of the employer, it may have a dedicated HR department or staff. For many working people, when something happens at work, their first instinct is to seek help from HR.

Unless they have had a negative experience with that department, they are unlikely to acknowledge that the role of the HR department is to act in the interests of management, not employees. Even if they do end up on the receiving end of HR, they are more likely to infer that the HR department was incompetent rather than acting against their interests.

A key challenge in addressing competition from HR is that the HR departments are embedded within the workplace and occupy a similar position of perceptions of trust and expertise in workplace issues. Additionally, there are often perceptions that “going to HR” is less confrontational than going to the union with a workplace issue.

Understanding that HR acts as a form of competition to union representation and recruitment can help unions design tactics to address this.

Managers and Supervisors

Like the HR department, many working people turn to their manager or supervisor when facing a problem in the workplace. While some supervisors may have genuine concern for the staff they manage, ultimately they report to business interests and so even the most generous manager is conflicted to some extent.

These supervisors however act as a form of competition for unions, who offer advocacy services. What’s more, these supervisors can undermine the collective action calls of unions.

The Fair Work Ombudsman

Particularly in industries or workplaces without developed HR departments, like small businesses and the service sector, the Fair Work Ombudsman is a clear alternative to joining or contacting a union. The ombudsman has an additional competitive characteristic (from a union’s point of view) of being perceived as both independent and having the ability to enforce its advice.

The Fair Work Ombudsman sends out weekly press releases about the money it recovers in underpayments and the rights it upholds.

What’s more, it also provides for free much of the technical information about pay rates, leave entitlements and other workplace rights.

While unions may consider the advice given by the ombudsman to lack the specialised knowledge or familiarity that a union will have for its industries, many people who are looking for assistance turn first to the ombudsman before a union.

Unions already face the “free rider” problem, but the fact that the government offers a great deal of advice for free is further unconventional competition.

Generous Delegates

Sometimes, a union will compete with itself. This mostly happens when delegates (or sometimes officials) decide to assist non-members. For delegates, it can be hard to refuse a request from a non-member, especially when they work with the non-member every day. However, for a union with a policy restricting advice and assistance to members only, this state of affairs obviously can discourage people to not join.

It’s a kind of free-rider problem.

The worst thing about this kind of competition is that it is mostly hidden. Delegates may not tell their organisers of all the “free” advice or assistance they’ve been giving to non-members.

I’ve seen in some cases unions encouraging the assistance of non-members. The thinking goes that non-members who receive help will be grateful to the union or the delegate, and so will join.

In my view, this attitude can lead to many more problems than it solves. Firstly, very few non-members join out of gratitude, and once their problem has been solved, their motivation for join a union has gone. Secondly, existing union members who see non-members receiving “member-only” services can become dissatisfied. Thirdly, advice and assistance given to non-members takes time and resources away from campaigns and activities designed to help members or recruit new members.

Thankfully, this kind of self-competition can be addressed through regular training for delegates.

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6 Responses to “Who are the real competition for unions?”

  1. Interesting article Alex. I’d actually add ‘voting’ to your list. One the reasons (I think) that unions didn’t get membership growth out of the ‘your rights at work’ campaign is that the ‘change the govt to change the laws’ message mean’t that people saw voting Labor as the cheap alternative to joining their union. Tony Abbott understands that given his don’t scare the horses approach to IR.

    • Hi Tim, I think the reason that unions didn’t get a membership boost out of the YRAW campaign was because “join your union” wasn’t a part of the campaign until the last 6 months. However, I’m aware of several unions who were focusing heavily on recruitment with their own campaigns (not YRAW branded) and were successful.

      However, I don’t agree that people saw “voting Labor” as an alternative to joining their union. Voting happens once every 3 years. The other things I’ve written about on this article happen every day.

  2. By extrapolation, you could include Labor governments who pass legislation that is more worker friendly than conservative governments, because the FWO are only able to enforce the current legislation. Somewhat of a catch 22 really.

    • Hi Robin, I don’t think legislation (except the most draconian Republican-style right-to-work laws) has much effect on union recruitment. About 80% of union membership growth or decline is due to the actions of the union itself (in my view).

  3. Hi Alex, I’d disagree. People join unions for instrumental reasons (higher wages and support if they have a problem at work), a voice in what happens to them at work, because everyone else at work is a member and there is cultural workplace pressure to join, and for ideological reasons. The ideological support has declined (Howard and Murdoch press legacy) as has cultural workplace pressure with declining workplace density, so that only leaves voice (which no one thinks they need) and instrumental reasons. If the legislation is framed in such a way that unions cannot achieve instrumental gains for workers, then why would they join? I am thinking of work choices where the list of terms and conditions able to be included in agreements was severely constrained by legislation. Some unions with good relationships with employers worked around this by creating memoranda of understanding with all non-allowable conditions in them, but not all, and those that did are those that are accused of being ‘in bed’ with employers. The protection against unfair dismissal was also removed and unless unions wanted to take action in the courts (and options for a win were limited), they couldn’t do much to protect workers. Allowing individual agreements in legislation also acts against instrumental reasons for joining because it individualises the employment experience. The fact that our legislation allows casual employment and has done so for a long time (although there used to be limits imposed) also reduces reasons to join, because there’s not much unions can do to protect casuals, and our workforce is increasingly casualised. Here voice is expressed as leave and try to get another job. So, I’d argue that legislation really does matter.
    As far as wages go, there are a numbers of studies on the union wage benefit in the US and Canadian context, which indicate significant benefits, but I haven’t seen any studies on Australian stats (but haven’t looked).

    • Hi Robin, working people joined unions long before there were laws that facilitated instrumental gains, and currently join in countries where joining a union is a life threatening proposition. I don’t think industrial relations laws have as big an impact on recruitment as many people make out. As I’ve said elsewhere, about 80% of a union’s growth will come from the activities of the union itself, and the other 20% is impacted by laws, employers actions, political environment, etc.

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