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Internet threat to union movement

By Paul Robinson, Workplace Editor, The Age,
Thursday 18 May 2000

The ACTU has conceded the Internet and electronic commerce represent the greatest threat to the union movement in more than a century.

In a special report prepared for the ACTU's executive this week, unions have been urged to recruit members from new high-technology industries or face a largely irrelevant future.

The report, by the new manager of the ACTU Trust, David Whitely, has found the exchange of goods and services via the Internet will rapidly change the face of workplaces and undermine traditional areas of trade union recruitment.

Mr Whitely said that the structure and employment patterns of banking and finance, retail, motor, transport, and air travel industries, as well as of media, health, manufacturing and communications were all changing dramatically because of the Internet.

The concern about the Internet and e-commerce is that it has the potential to wipe out the jobs our members are concentrated in. For some unions, responding to e-commerce may not be a matter of expanding membership, but fighting to keep members, he said.

For unions the challenge is going to be twofold. If the movement is to grow, we have to organise emerging and growing employment sectors. That challenge is significant. If we are to halt the existing membership decline, we at least need to be retaining members, he said.

The Whitely report follows Bureau of Statistics figures that show union membership has slumped to about 26 per cent of the population - down from 28 per cent last year. Fifteen years ago more than 40 per cent of workers were unionists.

The report found that employment growth in call centres, information technology and computer services had grown by 217 per cent in five years but unionisation of those areas had not kept pace with change. And growth in e- commerce and Internet trading would only accentuate those trends.

The report showed six of the 10 largest United States companies were IT/software-based and by 2003 it was expected that 36 per cent of all US shopping would be done over the web.

Mr Whitely said that a recent survey conducted by employment agency Morgan and Banks found 72per cent of employers in Australia intended to move up to 10 per cent of their businesses online this year. This would radically alter the style and shape of future workplaces.

He said unions had to consider a series of facts that painted a stark picture for traditional forms of union organisation and underlined the need to refocus on emerging workplaces.

At least 1.7 million Australians used the Internet once a week last year, and this is estimated to grow to 5.7 million by 2003.

The Federal Government planned to use e-commerce for 90 per cent of its trading for supplies this year.

Fairfax, National Australia Bank, News Corp and Telstra have, or are considering, floating their Internet arms, which are performing better than their traditional business.

E-spending is expected to triple by 2003, according to the Financial Times in London.

Tesco, a British supermarket, recently employed 300 extra staff to cope with its online sales.

Mr Whitely said: These trends indicate that change is occurring. Talk in the business press about the new `economy' and the `old economy' and the `Internet revolution' all indicate that the nature of business is changing quickly. (The head of Microsoft) Bill Gates talks of `Internet years' as being just three months.