An article from Australia recently listed that “in August 1992, 43 per cent of male workers and 35 per cent of females were union members in their main jobs. The figure [in May 2012] is now 18 per cent for both male and female workers.” That’s a marked drop in union membership numbers, and it’s clear that the new generation of workers have even less interest in joining a union. Do we think our university qualifications have replaced the need for union representation?
Personally, I’ve just never known what the benefit was. I’ve worked in places where individual employment contracts were used, rather than a collective bargaining process. I have always perceived unions to be redundant for employees who hold degrees and aren’t public servants. I never knew what the benefit was.
Until I moved to Singapore.
Then it became very clear what the power of unions are. Because when they are effectively muted (i.e. Singapore’s ‘National Trades Union Congress’ is very good at running a supermarket chain, not so great at getting minimum wages for Singaporeans), workers are individualised and isolated completely. And it’s not like all the Singaporeans holding degrees are entering a better job market because of their qualifications. The absence of a minimum wage means the starting rate for a degree holder is bargain basement low.
Yes, there are very low participation rates in Australian unions. But they still hold power, and can create a voice that applies to employees who aren’t even in the union. No, I don’t agree that all union action is positive – I prefer people in jobs over meeting every principle of good employer/employee dynamics. But yes, I do attribute a lot of Australia’s workplace culture and rights to the work of unions.
A large number of qualified individuals may be effective at their jobs, but pretty useless at bargaining on a national level about their expectations of work life in general, unless they speak as an organised group. So although we may think we are powerful through our skill set, it’s clear to me that university most certainly hasn’t replaced the role of unions.
Here’s to the minimum wage – it’s a bloody nice thing to have.
Btw, if you’re wondering how I can be employed in HR, and write about HR – here‘s my explanation.