- Interview by
- Lauren Kelly
Union membership in Australia has been in decline for several decades. Unions have adopted different strategies to adapt, and to retain and rebuild their membership bases. These range from experimenting with different organizing models, dedicating resources to electoral campaigns, and, increasingly, emphasizing social media campaigns. Despite a number of short-terms gains, these strategies have largely failed to build enduring, institutionalized gains for workers. At worst, some attempts to regain members have seen unions abandon industrial organizing all together.
Anthony Forsyth’s new book, The Future of Unions and Worker Representation: The Digital Picket Line, confronts this historic crisis. He compares different revitalization strategies adopted by unions in Australia, the United States, UK, and Italy. By analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of these strategies, Forsyth argues that there is a pathway for unions to regain their position of influence even without a return to the membership levels they enjoyed in the postwar era. In the twenty-first century, unions will need to experiment with new technologies, build alliances with social movements, and adopt membership models that reflect the flexibility — and precarity — of modern-day work. Anthony Forsyth spoke to Jacobin to outline the alternative he sees to a future of declining union power.
We are experiencing a period of significant global upheaval keenly felt by workers. What in particular makes your book so timely?
Over the past twenty years or more in academia, a lot of my work has focused on unions and the erosion of workers’ rights through the neoliberal state and employer hostility. In this book, I didn’t want to dwell on union-membership decline so much as use it as a jumping-off point to understanding the position unions find themselves in today. There’s been so much written about the demise of unions — I wanted to look beyond that and ask how the smarter unions in Australia and abroad are responding.
One of my central questions was about the importance of the law. How is the law responsible for such low membership levels, and could different laws help lead to a union revitalization? Even before the pandemic, these were important questions. But now, by accentuating the insecurity and inequality that was already there, the pandemic has reminded us how important unions are. For example, unions played a crucial role early in the pandemic by pushing for the JobKeeper income-support scheme.
Now, however, essential workers — who are supposed to be the heroes of the pandemic — are again bearing the brunt of the Omicron outbreak. The government relaxed COVID-19 control measures specifically to ensure that supply chain workers can go back to work — potentially while infected — just to keep shelves stocked and goods moving.
One highlight of your book is its comparative analysis of unions in Australia and abroad. Too often unions are treated as monolithic when they vary so much in terms of organizing styles and political values. In particular, you focus on new digital strategies for union revitalization. How does this fit within the broader history of union strategies?
In the Australian context, there have been historical periods dominated by certain approaches. That said, I don’t think any of the strategies that Australian unions have tried in the last thirty years were mutually exclusive of others. The [Prices and Incomes] Accord era of the 1980s and early 1990s gave primacy to institutional power in partnership with the Labor Party government. This shifted to focus more on organizing in the mid-2000s, a change that was greatly influenced by US unions.
The book focuses on the past five years, which have seen unions focus on new membership models as well as digital unions. Over this time, unions have somewhat neglected industrially-focused strategies. There are exceptions to this — the United Workers Union (UWU) and Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) are the standout examples from 2020–21. At the same time, one problem is that some union leaders have pinned their hopes for a union revival on “one thing.” I think this was especially the case with the Change the Rules campaign.
In the book, you give a great account of the Change the Rules campaign, led by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in 2019. With another federal election looming on the horizon, what role can — or should — the union movement play this time around?
In the lead-up to the last federal election in 2019, the Change the Rules campaign did a great job at mobilizing the movement and making the case for why the laws are wrong and limit the power of unions and workers. However, it was a technical argument that didn’t necessarily translate for voters. It did highlight the important issues like wage stagnation and job insecurity, all of which can be traced in large part to our labor laws. But I think the campaign left too much unexplained, so voters didn’t understand how one translates into another or what could be done about it. The unions said very little, for instance, about what multiemployer bargaining would actually look like or what rights for gig workers would look like.
Labor also had an ambitious economic redistribution agenda, at least given the political context of Australia in the last twenty or thirty years. And that didn’t compute either for a range of reasons. Now, there seems to be political nervousness in both Labor and the leadership of the union movement in the lead-up to this year’s election. After 2019, I think Labor and the movement are going for a very small target strategy. Reforms like multiemployer bargaining would help us win pay raises above inflation — but this isn’t really being considered. I think this means that if Labor does win, then we should expect a fairly small agenda in the first term. It may not be until the second term of a Labor government that significant industrial relations reforms are introduced.
This really brings me back to why I wanted to write the book. Although industrial law is very important, it’s only half of the story. Beyond relying on elections and legislative changes, how will unions rebuild and connect with new members and younger workers? What are unions doing? How are they innovating? What are they no longer doing? What kind of new membership models are they experimenting with? These are big focuses of the book. Most voters aren’t interested in technical arguments about labor laws — they are more concerned with education, the crisis in aged care, integrity in government, the treatment of women, and preparing for the next phase of the pandemic. As well, in this election, it won’t be enough to rely on the current government’s failures. Instead, Labor and the union movement need to articulate a positive agenda for change.
One of the union revitalization tools you examine is the digital picket line. How would you describe this, and is it something we will be seeing more of?
Digital picketing takes the long-established tactic of picketing a workplace and adapts it to the modern economy. It means that workers can not only wield power at the workplace gate, so to speak, but also in the online space.
Union members working at the New Yorker gave an example of this tactic that really captured my imagination. Although they worked for a supposedly progressive institution, these workers weren’t getting anywhere in contract negotiations. So, they decided to go out on strike in a virtual context. They announced that they would not perform normal duties, like answering emails. They also set an automated email response explaining that they were taking industrial action. The workers then followed this up with communications to subscribers and the public encouraging them to boycott the magazine’s online annual festival. They got Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren to pull out as speakers. That was a big deal in the US media and provided leverage that helped get the new deal signed.
It also strikes me there is a capacity to expand the reach of an industrial campaign with a digital picket line. And it’s something that might appeal to younger workers who are used to inhabiting the digital world. It’s not currently a widely used tactic, but I think we will see more of it.
I think the digital picket line holds great promise, but I do sometimes worry that unions can fetishize new technologies. They can become a silver bullet or a technocratic solution to political problems. I’ve seen unions turn more and more to fantasy tech solutions, particularly to address the problem of organizing young workers. I’m not convinced young people aren’t joining unions because we don’t have a cool app! My concern is that just as unions have previously pinned all their hopes on elections, now they will put the same blind trust in technological innovation, which may lead to further disappointment.
I think it’s a big risk. There can be a fixation with the technology itself, and communications campaigns often don’t lead to an increase in membership over the long run. Take the Fight for $15 campaign for example. It was a very effective social media campaign, and we can’t downplay that it has raised the wages of millions of US workers from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour. That’s meaningful. But the campaign demand was meant to be “$15 an hour and a union.” No one disputes that the second part of the demand hasn’t really happened.
It’s a challenge to build something enduring beyond social media hits. It’s not just about creating an app, for instance — it’s about moving workers from online to offline activism. We still need organizing. But what does it look like, and how does technology fit into the strategy? The tech is not an end in itself or a replacement for a traditional union. It should be a bridge to enable the union to reach new groups of workers, especially young workers. Ideally, these tools would be just as democratic as every other structure within the union.
On the subject of young workers, we know that in Australia union membership among young workers is low — somewhere between 5 and 9 percent in Australia for under twenty-fives. Why is this? The school strikes and Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements show a strong political will, so I don’t think apathy is the problem. Are young people opposed to unions? Or perhaps unions are opposed to young people? When we’re talking about young workers, it sometimes feels like the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) is the elephant in the room. The SDA, after all, organize retail workers and have struck deals that actually disadvantage workers when compared to the legal minimum.
At a fundamental level, young people and unions just don’t understand each other. Many young people see unions as archaic relics that aren’t relevant to their lives or political values. There are plenty of negative media stereotypes that don’t help, and of course when unions or their leaders really do act badly, it plays into these negative images. As I show in the book, however, there’s international research to suggest that young workers will join and get active in unions if they deliver. This means improving their situation at work.
It also means the union should align with the values young workers hold. This goes beyond representing their industrial interests and to broader social justice issues, including those concerning gender, sexuality, race, and the environment.
Young workers also want to see a result from any organization that they join. If they don’t get it, they’ll move on to something else — technology enables that. From the outside, I’m sure the SDA looks like a monolithic “big union.” And even though I’m sure they do things to target younger demographics of workers, they have placed a priority on recruiting new members by making deals with big employers. The Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union [a more militant, pro-worker competitor to the SDA] is a logical response to that. It fills a representation vacuum that some young retail workers feel intensely.
I think representation will continue to be a big issue, particularly as younger workers are often concentrated in the lowest-paid and most precarious forms of work. The gig economy is perhaps the pointiest end of the precarity spectrum. Despite this, gig workers are organizing into unions. What are some of the strategies they are using?
In the book, I focus mostly on the collectivization of gig workers in the rideshare and food delivery sectors. In the four countries I looked at, unions have adopted several interconnected strategies to successfully contest the misclassification of work — that is, pretending workers are contractors. This is at the core of these platforms’ exploitative business model.
First, Australian unions like the TWU and the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s (VTHC) Young Workers Centre have amplified the underpayment and extreme safety risks gig workers face. They have done so by surveying workers and making submissions to government inquiries, as a basis for attracting media coverage and mobilizing workers through logoffs and protests. Second, unions have initiated or supported litigation to challenge the platforms’ misclassification of gig workers. The best example is the case brought by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the GMB Union. This case established that London Uber drivers are entitled to the national minimum wage and holidays, under UK employment laws.
Third, unions have engaged in collective bargaining with the platforms that run the gig economy. One example is the agreement between Unions New South Wales and Airtasker a few years ago, although it had significant limitations. In 2020, the TWU made a deal with DoorDash to ensure the company would provide its food delivery workers with COVID-19 protections. In Italy, self-organized collectives of riders have played a more prominent role, while in the United States there are many union groups advocating for the rights of gig workers. From all of this, you can see that unions have made important gains in the gig economy, challenging the ability of global tech companies to claim “disruption” as a cover for exploitation.
Looking to the future, there’s a general view that Australia, as a middle power, tends to follow trends from the United States and the UK. Do you think this holds true industrially? If so, what should the labor movement expect?
Everything we’ve seen in Australian industrial relations and unions over the last thirty to forty years first happened in the United States, then the UK. There’s an established set of factors that have contributed to membership decline. These include hostility from the state and employers and business models that rely on precarious work, like contracting and the use of labor-hire agencies. Also, the rise of the gig economy, rampant casualization, and insecure work are important.
We should prepare for more of the same. Particularly given the far-right attacks on democracy, unions will become more and more needed. Capital will constantly reinvent new ways to evade employment rights and unions. Already, gig work is expanding into the health and care sector, as well as other new sectors of the economy.
Unions in the United States are also shifting toward social movement unionism and are linking up with community coalitions like Fight for $15 and the #RedForEd teachers’ strikes. The growing Starbucks organizing drive in the US is also showing that workers are still willing to push hard for the right to union representation, despite formidable obstacles. In the UK, grassroots independent unions like the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain and United Voices of the World are leading predominantly low-paid migrant workers out on strike action.
What role do you think the union movement can or should play in opposing far-right politics in Australia, and more broadly, in rebuilding collective social norms that have been eroded? Are you hopeful we can achieve this?
Yes, unions have a key role to play in combating the far right’s narrative on a whole range of issues. Unions should be progressive agents for social change.
This said, if you take an issue like the vaccination debate, it’s quite complicated as there is no single union voice. Unions are trying to walk a line between supporting vaccination on the one hand and wanting to prevent employers from gaining new powers over workers on the other. There’s a small minority of union members who oppose vaccine mandates and who expect their unions to protect their jobs if they are fired for refusing to be vaccinated. These problems show that it’s not easy or straightforward for unions to take a position that can resist some of the anxieties that the far right want to whip up. Even so, on any big issue — be it climate change and the idea of a just transition, or anything else — the union movement and its leadership need to take a strong and principled position.
In these debates, unions should formulate a sophisticated response that can speak to the public at large, not just small groups of leftists on Twitter. It’s about going into communities and listening to the concerns people have, whether it’s about vaccination or what the transition to clean energy will mean for them.