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Union membership in Australia

Union membership in Australia has been falling steadily over the past four decades. There were just over 1.5 million union members in 2016, compared with just over 2.5 million in 1976. This represents a decline of around 1 million union members, or 38 per cent.

During the same period, union density (the union member share of total employment) has fallen from 51 per cent to 14 per cent.

Union membership has been declining in Australia for a number of reasons, including:

  • steady decline in employment in industries that traditionally had high concentrations of union membership – such as large scale car manufacturing, printing and textile, clothing and footwear
  • the collapse of compulsory unionism in Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. Under the federal Workplace Relations Act 1996, union preference and compulsory unionism was made illegal both for employees covered by the federal system and for those outside but within reach of other Commonwealth powers
  • decreasing prevalence of union members in industries that previously had a much stronger union member presence (including in manufacturing and transport, postal and warehousing)
  • strong growth in employment in service industries that have traditionally had relatively low union presence, such as retail trade and accommodation and food services
  • growth in part-time and/or casual employment across most industries and occupations and relative decline in the permanent and full-time employment share of total employment.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows union density among employed males has fallen from 43 per cent in 1992 to 13 per cent in 2016 while union density for employed women has fallen from 35 per cent to 16 per cent.

“Employees who are members of a trade union are more likely to be over 40, female, and working full-time.” said Bruce Hockman, Chief Economist at the ABS.

The slightly higher proportion of female union members than men is due partly to their concentration in industries and occupations that are more likely to be unionised, such as nursing and teaching.

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