Was WorkChoices good for union membership?

As the ABS reported yesterday, trade union membership experienced a rare increase in absolute numbers in 2008, up by more than 3%. While growth in public sector numbers, as The Age notes, explains a good proportion of this, many industries which have low public sector involvement also enjoyed strong increases (though union membership continued to decline in many industries as well).

Though WorkChoices made it harder for unions to access workplaces to recruit, the overall policy framework of WorkChoices should have been a positive for unions. As Michael Warby has long argued (most recently in the Autumn 2009 issue of Policy; available in newsagents) government setting of wages and conditions is bad for unions, because it delivers improvements to workers without them having to employ unions to bargain on their behalf. A policy that reduces the power of tribunals and increases the rights of employers should therefore be good for unions, because it gives workers a reason to employ them to negotiate better wages and conditions.

Labor’s partial resurrection of a regulation-based approach to industrial relations should therefore be a net negative for union membership, even though the system overall is good for union officials in giving them more rights and powers than they had under WorkChoices.

Whether this will translate into a reversal in union membership next year is hard to say. There are at least two factors working in favour of union membership increasing, in improved access by unions to workplace and a business cycle shift in power away from employees towards employers. For employees, this makes union membership a more attractive investment. On the other hand, the sheer scale of job loss will make an absolute increase in union membership unlikely, even if the % of workers who are union members increases.