Political Unionism in the 21st Century: Women, care and social democracy 

For the past 30 years we have all heard about union decline.

Membership has collapsed. Labour markets have been decentralized. The Labor Party has even moved to weaken union influence at National Conference and over the party’s leadership. Yet, recently unions have been credited with significant influence over election outcomes.


“Nurses Strike”, Sturt St (?), Ballarat, 1986, Ballarat Base Hospital Trained Nurses League

Is this yet another sign of ‘elitist’ political strategies, or might it portend a more democratic politics from a different – more feminised – union movement?

The rise of neoliberalism has seen unions struggle internationally, especially in the English speaking world. Yet, the experience in Australia was unique. During the 1980s and early 1990s a Labor Government oversaw market reform in close coalition with the union movement via a formal Accord. Industrially amalgamations coincided with substantial declines in union membership density. But the political centralization necessitated by the Accord opened new strategies.

Buchanan and colleagues credit greater centralisation in the organization of the labour movement with its enhanced ability to organize politically — a capacity exemplified by the Your Rights at Work campaign developed to oppose the radical labour market regulation policy, WorkChoices. In 2005, the union campaign mobilized thousands of workers up until the 2007 federal election. Subsequent analysis suggests it had a tangible impact on the election result, helping to elect a Labor Government that then moderated industrial relations laws.

There are clearly dangers for unions in shifting too far from industrial to political strategies. Yet, closer examination suggests opportunities to combine political and industrial strategies as the composition of union membership and structure of the economy change.

Along with other advanced capitalist economies, Australia has undergone a service transition. In 1966 almost half the workforce were employed in ‘production’ industries, a figure that fell to under a quarter in 2011. Not only have these industries declined in relative size, but also, in the occupations that once made up the core of union membership – machinists, miners, construction and factory workers – density has steadily fallen.

The rise of many service industries with traditionally poor density, particularly retail trade and finance, has accelerated overall declines in union density. However, this is less true of the largest and fastest growing employment sectors.

Health and social care, and education and training are amongst the largest employers in Australia. Both sectors also enjoy both relatively high and stable membership density. The growing importance of unions in social provision has received increased attention. Feminist unionists in Sweden have been key in resisting attacks on the welfare state.

Rae Cooper has charted the growing role of women within Australian unions. Women are now more likely to be members than men. These workers, concentrated in health and education industries, potentially occupy a strategic position in relation to new forms of political and industrial organising.

Workers in social provision are uniquely placed to advance calls for the expansion of social rights that benefit all workers (and to identify and resist forms of retrenchment). They enjoy high levels of social trust, meaning they can mobilise ‘everyday’ citizens around specific issues, while advancing a broader political vision. And these workers represent a growing and important constituency for centre-left politics that more readily unites social democratic material claims with post-materialist concerns.

Social provision has long been a site of political contest, and considered central to the class bargain made between workers and employers. Advances in social protection from pension rights through to parental leave have been won by union campaigns, often through a combination of political and industrial campaigning.

What is distinct about more recent campaigns is the central role played by workers in the affected industries. This is particularly important as these sectors grow, and as they are marketised – making campaigns for equity more complex.

Take two examples. In NSW during the early 2000s the teachers union campaigned for lower class sizes. At about the same time in Victoria, the nurses union campaigned for limiting nurse: patient ratios. These campaigns combined claims for better quality services with better working conditions, and they involved both industrial and political organising.

The success of these campaigns draws directly on their role in social provision. Amanda Tattersall points out in her analysis of the school class size campaign, that union strength alone was unlikely to be successful. Instead the Teachers Federation worked with parents and experts to build a community coalition.

The recent experiences of the campaigns to defend Medicare during the federal election and for Gonski funding reforms, both driven by unions, show how effective they can be. Such campaigns also shift the union-Labor dynamic. Because they are issue based they inform a policy position, not just partisan outcomes, and because union campaign infrastructure now equals (or at times even exceeds) Labor infrastructure in many marginal seats, it places very real pressure on Labor to support these policy positions.

The public trust of care and service workers enjoy also makes them effective campaigners. Nurses have long enjoyed the position of most trusted occupation in the annual Morgan survey, with teachers following close behind. This level of social trust has two important implications. First, as welfare becomes marketised, so forms of retrenchment are often less visible. Service and Care Workers are not only best placed to identify these threats, their trusted status means citizens take seriously their concerns, helping to make subtle forms of retrenchment the subject to public scrutiny.

Second, it means teachers, nurses and other carers are personally trusted faces of campaigns. This makes political unionism a mass mobilising tactic, because it necessarily involves thousands of workers staffing booths and knocking on doors. But, it is only effective when workers feel committed to the cause.

Finally, the professional ethic of many workers in social provision lends itself to a broader range of issues campaigning. For example, educators have played a key role in promoting Safe Schools and Indigenous history programs. Likewise, medical professionals have been vocal critics of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Their professional ethic provides a strategically important role in post-materialist campaigns.

Internationally working women, particularly those with tertiary education, are emerging as an influential progressive constituency . This constituency appears even more supportive of expanding social provision than the more traditional left constituency centered on blue-collar men, while also being more supportive of environmental and social rights issues. Unions involved in social provision are ideally placed to organise and mobilise this constituency both as workers and citizens.

Of course, blue collar unions and new social movements remain important social and political actors. And many other health and education workers lack the industrial might of nurses and teachers. However, there are signs of a new type of union politics that is far from fading and potentially reconnects citizens to politics.

Ben Spies-Butcher is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University