Adapting to changing work: job-hopping and union membership

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When workers are asked about how the nature of work has changed, they often mention things like technology, safety, complexity and digital transformation.

Unions are (mostly) well adapted to these changes. Work changes due to complexity or new technology can be addressed fairly well between unions, workers and employers as part of the normal employment relationship.

But the rapidly increasing rate of job-hopping, especially for younger workers aged under 45 is something that is more difficult for unions to adapt to.

Workers born after 1980 are significantly more likely — three times more likely — to switch jobs regularly compared to older workers. (Gallup)

Most union members (especially in Australia) are aged over 45. This means that for a large proportion, the worker remains employed by the same boss for most of their career. If they do move, it is infrequently.

But for younger workers, the prospect of staying for an extended period of time at a single employer is decreasingly likely.

This regular job switching is not necessarily by choice. A larger proportion of jobs are insecure, fixed-term contracts or casual. Similarly, changing jobs is the only way for many workers to get a pay rise that reflects their growing experience and skills.

What is the consequence for unions?

Most unions are not structured to manage rapidly changing workforces, or member job-hopping.

Especially in Australia, unions have rigid rules (shaped by Fair Work Act requirements) about membership. This makes it difficult for unions to have more flexible arrangements that allow for membership to easily follow a member from job to job, or to easily transfer from union to union.

The consequence is that when a union member gets a new job that is covered by a different union, the new union often needs to recruit that member from scratch.

An alternative would be a system where membership is more easily transferred across unions.

This is a cultural, systems and technology challenge for the union movement.

According to ABS data, more than 150,000 workers join their union each year (the actual figures are much higher), and about the same number leave. Around 70% of those resignations are due to the member changing jobs or industry.

This means there is an estimated 105,000 members who would remain a member of their union if their membership could follow them from their old job to their new job. Even if the number were a third of that, the growth potential would be significant and game-changing.

If the union movement could change our systems, technology and culture to make this possible, we could see tens of thousands of workers remain in the movement each year.

From a technological perspective, this is more than achievable.

The primary barrier is within unions — the systems and culture that promotes, encourages and facilitates membership transfers. The question to pose then, is what could unions change now in their rules, in their systems, in their internal cultures to facilitate greater ease for members to remain in the movement as they change jobs.