Trade union organising & labour history

Rae Cooper & Greg Patmore

"The critical role of active workplace organising in building the success of the Australian labour movement has become a neglected part of our history ... The[ese] papers take a fresh look at the simplistic notion that Australian trade union successes have depended upon the regulatory support provided by the arbitration system and Labor governments".

- Greg Combet, from Labour History, No. 82, Nov. 2002.


In recent years, in the context of declining density and power, Australian unions have engaged in a debate about their survival. This debate has hinged upon the concept of 'organising'. Advocates for change argue that unions need to dedicate significantly more resources to organising the unorganised and that they need to adopt new organising tactics based upon workplace mobilisation in order to turn the tide of membership decline. Without such changes, advocates of organising reform argue, unions will not survive.

Despite the enormity of the membership crisis and thus the urgency of this debate, we know surprisingly little about either contemporary strategies or historical patterns in union organising. Union formation, political strategies and industrial campaigns have been the subject of considerable comment by Australian labour historians. However, there has been no comprehensive discussion of how unions organise. The thematic section of the current issue of Labour History (published November 2002) goes some of the way toward remedying this situation, by presenting five historical studies of organising in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

This article overviews contemporary debates about union organising and then reviews the treatment of union organising by Australian labour historians. The first section presents an overview of research on the the contemporary decline in union membership, as well as the union strategies formulated to respond to this decline. The second section reviews Australian labour history research which provide some insight into the organising strategies of Australian unions.

Union membership, union organising and the contemporary organising debate

Australian unions have haemorrhaged members during the past two decades. In 1979 just over half the workforce was unionised; however in 2000 less than a quarter of Australian workers were union members. A density rate this low had not been experienced by Australian trade unions since the first decade of the twentieth century when unions were recovering from the crushing effects of the 'great strikes' and depression of the 1