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New parliamentary report on union decline

Australian union membership has been in decline since the 70s. A new report attempts to track trends and establish where and why this has happened.

Though a few unions have actually managed to increase their membership (including the Police Federation and Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation), the overall number of Australians in unions has been dropping for decades. In 1976 just over 50 per cent of all employees claimed membership, now that number sits at 14 per cent.

A new parliamentary report on the changes attempts to answer the where and why of that trend.

Why union membership is declining

As for the ‘why’ of union decline, the report suggests the following factors:

  • Increase in part-time and casual employment and a decrease in full-time employment
  • The end of compulsory membership, due to federal and state legislation in in the eighties and nineties
  • The decline of industries with traditionally high membership, such as car manufacturing; printing and textile; and clothing and footwear
  • Growth in service industries that have always had low membership

Those last two points are elegantly captured in this graph (sourced from Griffith Business University Professor Bradley Bowden article on the Conversation).

Job type

In terms of how the type of work people are engaged in has an impact on union membership, having paid leave seems like the most significant variable. The report says that twenty per cent of those who had paid leave are union members, compared to 5.6 per cent for those who don’t.

There is a smaller difference between those working full-time (15 per cent) and those working part-time (11 per cent).


It might seem surprising, but there’s a slightly higher union density among women (16 per cent in 2016, from 35 per cent in 1992) than there is men (13 per cent, down from 43 per cent in 1992). Apparently this is partly due to women being in more unionised occupations such as nursing and teaching.

This fits with 2016 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which showed that the top three industries for women were hospitals, primary education, and aged care residential services. For men they were computer system design and related services, cafes and restaurants, and supermarket and grocery stores.

Older workers are much more likely to be union members compared to their younger counterparts:

  • Workers aged 45-64, 19 per cent union membership
  • Workers aged 25-44, 13 per cent union membership
  • Workers aged 15-24, six per cent union membership

According to the report, “one of the major reasons for lower union membership among young people is they are much more likely to be working on a casual and/or part–time basis compared to older workers.”

But while different work types undoubtedly have an impact, this seems like a limited explanation. Certainly it applies to 15-24 year olds, but what about the six per cent difference in union membership for the two older groups? Rates of part-time work between those groups aren’t so different.

Overseas comparisons

According to OECD statistics, the developed countries that have experienced comparatively similar union membership declines to Australia are New Zealand and the UK. The former had 69.1 per cent union membership in 1980 and 17.7 per cent in 2016. The latter saw a drop from 52.2 per cent to 23.7 per cent in the same period.

But a Commonwealth country that has had a different experience is Canada. According to survey data, they had 33.4 per cent union membership in 1990 and 26.3 per cent in 2016.

One of the biggest reasons for the difference between countries is legislation. An OECD report on employment notes:  “The last decades have shown that in many cases the alternative to collective bargaining is not individual bargaining, but either state regulation or no bargaining at all – as only few employees can effectively negotiate their terms of employment with their employer.”

But regardless of individual differences, the overall trend in developed countries is towards less union membership. As the OECD report found: “Since the 1980s, [the] process of collective representation and negotiation has faced a series of major challenges resulting, in particular, from technological and organisational changes, globalisation, the decline of the manufacturing sector, new forms of work and population ageing, which have severely tested its efficacy.”

Learn about recruitment strategies as well as current legislation and labour conventions that underpins practice, in the AHRI short course ‘Recruitment and workplace relations’.

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Dr Stephen Treloar
Dr Stephen Treloar

This report suggests a ‘perfect storm’ for unions to be almost phased out of relevance, if not existence it seems, however, danger rests if this was to happen. There are plenty examples of abuse and misuse of power from both industry and unions over the decades. There is also a prevailing distrust of unions of the many reported cases of abuse for personal gain. Be that as it may, when one considers the loss of wages in real terms over the same period of time union density is decreasing there are worrying signs. Industry cannot be relied upon to share… Read more »

Catherine Cahill
Catherine Cahill

This report is interesting in that it seeks to lay the blame for declining Union Membership mostly on occupational changes and the patterns of work. It highlights the decline in blue collar, and the rise in professional occupations as a reason for decline, yet at the same time states that professionals such as Teachers and Nurses have actually experienced an increase in membership (which contradicts the first premise). If this is the best the union movement can do to understand why membership is in decline, then clearly the only way is down. It makes absolutely no sense that the most… Read more »


On an almost daily basis there is an article in HRM about big bad employers and how they are failing with respect to addressing bullying and harassment, or their lack of ethics, accountability, corporate governance, etc. Yet, nowhere are such issues more of a problem than in the Unions. The Royal Commission exposed scandalous behaviour and practices to which the Media largely turned a blind eye. Union leaders and ALP politicians attacked the Commission with impunity. Motormouth McManus continues to propagate execrable gibberish and righteously defends appalling behaviour from any union rep. It is no wonder Unions are acting like… Read more »


Stephen, I agree with most of your comments, but in relation to the comment about a decrease in real wages, it should be noted that up until about 2013 we saw union-negotiated EBA’s with unrealistic salaries, allowances, etc, and absurd yearly pay increases of 6-8%. They got too greedy and cooked the goose that laid the golden egg.


Have to agree with some of Dan’s points, and add a few more. At a prior employer, the Union and their delegates were not only greedy, but they were bullies, they were only interested in ensuring entitlements to their delegates in EBA negotiations, and the outright lied regularly to the staff about negotiations. I remember a time that the company wanted to change a clause that impacted delegates (reduced the time that they were permitted to wander around “talking” to the members, ie out smoking and drinking coffee) – they refused to agree to the EBA for a few months… Read more »

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