The rise of human resource management coincides with the decline of union membership. To what extent is that a coincidence?
For most Australians, it’s difficult to conceive what life was like before the labour movement transformed the workplace. A world where you would toil for 14 hours a day, with no sick-leave, and where a 60 minute absence from the workplace meant you could be subjected to up to three months imprisonment is such a far cry from the modern nature of employment it sounds closer to slavery. Human resources, had it existed, would have been mostly about punishing lazy employees who left work after only 13 hours because they were dying from flu.
Especially in its early history, Australia was shaped by the labour movement. Organised workers in Melbourne were the first in the world to win the right to an eight-hour work day with no impact on their pay and Australia was also the home of the first majority Labor government in the world.
But if the labour movement makes the news today it’s mostly in reports about historically low union membership or union corruption. As for predictions that unions and the labour movement are dying, there are more than a few.
In Australia union membership is decreasing. In January a Roy Morgan survey revealed that only 12.3 per cent of Australians between the ages 25-34 are union members. The national average is 17.4 per cent and is mostly represented by older people, with 25.7 per cent of those between 55-65 being union members and 15.5 per cent for those beyond retirement age.
Unions themselves recognise the problem, and are taking steps to try and address it. A 2016 draft paper written by former labour movement officials ties declining membership to digital disruption and social change. It notes: “The very existence of an employer-employee relationship is changing. The nature of work is changing. An increasing number of Australian workers have no employer. Collective bargaining is largely inaccessible to the vast majority of workers.”
HR and the labour movement
The rise of the importance of human resource management in the latter half of the 20th century to now has coincided with the decline of union membership. While there is no direct causal link, to some extent this makes sense. Effective HR that realises happy employees are productive employees is achieving many of the goals of the labour movement. Unions emphasised the value of workers and HR can be seen as an organisational attempt to recruit, nurture and maximise that value.
Case in point: if you do an internet search for “how HR can handle unions” you will actually find several articles, written for a US audience, advising HR professionals on the best ways to prevent employee unionisation. To quote from just one, “A workplace that fosters good relationships between management and employees and addresses employee concerns is much less likely to force employees to union representation for assistance.”
Their overlapping concerns is why a primary HR role in many organisations is negotiating and liaising with unions.
But does good HR make unions redundant? On the level of an individual organisation, it just might. It’s hard to imagine a union daring to ask for something like Netflix’s unlimited vacation time or Google Australia’s 18 weeks maternity leave on full pay. But on a society-wide level?
It’s important to remember that many business concerns don’t have an HR department and that in the new gig economy, the status of workers is often unclear and that makes them vulnerable. Would Uber drivers have more leverage if they were organised, like is happening in Seattle? Would the company stay in Australia if they were successful? And in a future where the automation of millions of jobs is a real concern, are unions more or less important?
These are just some of the questions we have to answer about the future of work. But if union influence continues to dwindle, the pressure on HR to be truly representative of all stakeholders might only increase.
Agree, disagree? Think the question is questionable? HRM would love to hear your views.
Photograph of the Eveleigh Workshops during the 1917 Railway Strike, courtesy of State Records NSW.