The United Workers Union: New unionism starts here
Professor Anthony Forsyth, RMIT University / 12 December 2019
The United Workers Union (UWU) commenced operating today, arising from the merger of the National Union of Workers (NUW) and United Voice (UV).
These are two unions that have confronted the major challenges facing the labour movement head on: fragmented, insecure work channeled through fissured business structures; a high proportion of migrant and young workers, both very difficult to organise; and the perception of some workers that there just isn’t enough on offer from traditional unions (while they can get the benefit of union-won enterprise agreement gains without joining).
Union density in Australia is less than 15% of the workforce, continuing a 30-year decline. But the UWU signals an important new direction. Its two founding unions are lead innovators.
The NUW, through its ‘whole of supply chain approach’ to combating exploitation in the fresh food supply chain and its advocacy to break the entrapment of many workers in long-term casual labour hire.
UV, through Hospo Voice – described as ‘Netflix for the union movement’ – an app-based twist on union membership that has engaged younger workers in the fight against wage theft, and empowered them through their own version of collective voice.
Community unionism is a feature of the tactics and campaigning of both the NUW and UV: forming alliances with like-minded groups to achieve common objectives, and bringing the broader community along in support.
The photo accompanying this post is of the UWU’s banner at Victorian Trades Hall. It shows how the new union forges the combination of traditional union values with its fundamental purpose in a vastly different modern economy: the challenge to successfully organise workers in hotels, casinos, commercial properties (cleaners, security guards), child care and aged care facilities, the supermarket supply chain, manufacturing plants, warehouses and distribution centres.
Its internal, industry-based structure is geared towards achieving growth and reversing membership decline. That will be the measure of the UWU’s success in 5 or 10 years’ time.
Anthony Forsyth is a Professor of Labour law at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches and researches on all aspects of work and the law, specialising in collective bargaining, the regulation of trade unions, labour hire and worker exploitation. He is currently working on a book exploring how unions and emerging forms of collective worker representation are responding to the major challenges of the current economic system.
He tweets at @AnthonyForsyt10