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The complex but often fascinating charts which make up the bulk of this book provide a picture of the processes by which Australian trade unionism developed during the twentieth century. For many purposes, a critical starting date is the passage of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act in 1904. A critical termination point, for many purposes, is 1994, when both legislative change and the policies of the union movement itself began to transform unionism, for better or worse and whether permanently or as a passing phase in its history.

The book is primarily a depiction of union amalgamations over a ninety year period. Such amalgamations had many causes. In part they resulted from changes in technology within particular industries or in the larger society. The first type of changes usually involved larger and more centralised processes of production; the second included vastly improved transport and communications. That being so, we might expect not only that there would have been a tendency for once independent unions to amalgamate but for this to produce a steady decline in the total number of unions.

As these charts reveal, amalgamations did occur, in very great numbers, throughout this period. But this did not lead to the marked and consistent decline in total union numbers which might have been expected. For nearly all of the period covered by this book, the total number of unions varied surprisingly little. This was the more surprising in that for most of this time the number of unions was almost universally regarded as 'too high'.

In 1979, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recorded that there were 328 'reporting unions'. This phrase refers to the number of unions which provided the Bureau with their membership figures. Since unions were legally obliged to provide such information and the Bureau sought to make its reports as complete as possible, we may assume that this was at least close to the total number of unions. During the next five years, the number of unions fluctuated somewhat but in 1984 returned, to 329 (ABS: 1990:127).

When we look back over a longer period we do indeed find some decrease in the number of unions, but hardly a dramatic one. When the counterpart of the ABS began publishing such figures in 1913, there were 408 reporting unions. In 1929 the figure was 374; and in 1949 it was 349 (CBCS 1913:9; 1930:11; 1950:137). Whatever changes were reducing the number of unions, by causing them to amalgamate with others or to disappear altogether, were almost balanced by the appearance of new unions. Technological change was as likely to give rise to new unions as to remove the need for old ones.

From the mid-1980s, however, there was a consistent and eventually a precipitate fall in the number of unions - from 329 in 1984 to 299 in 1989; 275 in 1991 and 188 in 1993 (ABS 1993:127). Even the latter figure may seem remarkably high to those who recall that since 1989 the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has declared that it was seeking to reduce the number of unions to 17-20 (Crosby and Easson 1992:375). It is possible and useful to explain such a discrepancy; and such an explanation helps to show what this book has to tell us.

We need to remember that this book is concerned with organisations which are involved in the 'Australian' (ie. the federal) system of industrial relations. But there also are, or have been, corresponding industrial organisations at the level of the six states; and many organisations both of employers and employees have been concerned principally with one or more of the state systems.

Unfortunately, the distinctions between these federal and state systems, and the organisations which take part in them, are far from tidy or self-evident. Moreover, they are continuing to change. It is not the case, generally speaking, that certain industries are dealt with under federal awards and others under state awards. It is not even the case that employees of the state governments are always covered by state rather than federal awards. The shifting boundaries between federal and state award coverage are the product of particular decisions and action taken at different times and in different circumstances during the past 90 years.

In 1990, 47 per cent of Australia's employees worked under state awards and related agreements. A further 32 per cent worked under federal awards and agreements, brought about and through the organisations with which this book is concerned. Another three per cent worked under agreements which were not formally registered under either the federal or a state system; while the remaining 20 per cent were 'award-free' (ABS 1993:129). That is, their conditions were not formally regulated by any legally-recognised rules. Only in Victoria (and also, unsurprisingly in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory) did a majority of employees work under federal awards. The proportion of employees working under state awards was particularly high in Western Australia and Queensland.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons for giving special attention to the federal system and to the organisations which operate under it. Firstly, the proportion of workers covered by federal awards has probably continued to rise since 1989, especially following the virtual dismantling of the Victorian state system in 1993. Secondly, the federal system has always been of disproportionate importance as providing guidelines which have influenced the corresponding state arbitral institutions and which they have sometimes been legally required to follow.

While the conciliation and arbitration systems and the organisations which operate within them have always been subject to change, the rate of change has been particularly rapid during the past ten years. They may be summarised by saying that emphasis on the importance of the federal system (and therefore of the federal organisations of employers and employees) has continued to increase; and that the rate of union amalgamations has become almost feverish. At the federal level the ACTU's ambition to see only about 20 'super unions' does not look impossible of achievement. These changes are continuing; but they may not be irreversible. Important forces within the trade union movement, especially those associated with the Labor Council of New South Wales (the branch of the ACTU in that state but also an important body in its own right) have expressed doubts about the dominant role of federal industrial relations, and specifically of the ACTU. And the Secretary of the Labor Council wrote in mid-1994 that the new generation of super unions 'may have a use-by date' and that 'within the next five years we may see a dismantling of this approach' (Peter Sams, Southland Winter 1994, p.5). Those who think in this way also expect and hope for a revival in the importance and autonomy of the state arbitration systems and of state-registered unions and employer associations.

Be that as it may, throughout this century changes in the number and composition of federal industrial organisations have been of great importance and no one can understand the present situation without having a knowledge of this area. As the charts in this book make clear, amalgamations at the federal level have a very long history, of which recent developments are simply the latest stage. It follows that a knowledge of these processes is essential, to an understanding of Australian industrial relations throughout this century, as well as of prospects which they face as the century comes to an end. Raj Jadeja's meticulous charts, and his lucid historical summary of the main tendencies in the changing composition of 'parties to the award' enable this to be done for the first time.

Don Rawson
Political Science Program
Research School of Social Sciences
The Australian National University

ABS 1990 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1988 Labour Statistics Australia, Government Printer, Canberra.
ABS 1993 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1988 Labour Statistics Australia, Government Printer, Canberra.
CBCS 1913, 1930, 1950 Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Labour Reports, Government Printer, Melbourne (1913) and Canberra (1930, 1950).
Crosby, M., and Easson, M., (eds), What Should Unions Do?, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1992.

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