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Australians are warming to unions: survey

By Paul Robinson, The Age, Monday 23 July 2001

Australians are developing more positive attitudes to trade unions with more now committed to joining a union compared with two years ago, a university study has found.

The national survey of 1100 people by Sydney University shows wide public support for trade unions with most Australians saying they would be in a trade union if they could.

The research, through the university's Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, follows similar surveys in 1996, 1997 and 1999. The latest results show that most of those surveyed, 52 per cent, agreed with the proposition that I'd rather be in a union, up from 44 per cent in a survey two years ago.

This follows years of sharply declining union membership, which fell from about 45 per cent of the working population in the 1980s to about 24 per cent today. That trend was reversed earlier this year when more than 25,000 new members, almost all women, were logged by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The survey, commissioned by the Labor Council of NSW, found that only 14 per cent of Australians agreed with the proposition: Australia would be better off without unions - down from 23 per cent in 1999.

Significantly it also found that 56 per cent of respondents agreed that management has more power than unions, a rise of three percentage points since 1999.

Labor Council secretary John Robertson said the survey challenged popular wisdom promoted by Prime Minister John Howard and his Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Abbott, that unions were on the nose.

Mr Robertson said the government, which is to launch an inquiry into alleged union intimidation and corruption in the building industry, should realise there was little political mileage in the issue, despite 2001 being an election year.

This survey indicates that, given a freedom to choose, most workers would be in unions. This begs the question - what is the Howard Government doing to help them exercise their freedom of choice? I am aware of numerous examples of workers being actively discouraged from joining a union, discriminated against and even intimidated, he said.

There are many employers pushing the line that to be a union member is to be disloyal to the company. In the worst cases, workers who join trade unions have their hours cut and career prospects diminished.

Mr Robertson said the government's Office of the Employment Advocate was an anti-union front which, after five years, was still to launch a prosecution for victimisation on behalf of a trade union member.

While the Howard Government tries to cash in on stereotypes of violent building workers it is turning a blind eye to the more subtle violence being perpetrated day in and day out on ordinary workers.