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Alt-unionism: why businesses may be better with the devil they know

Sarah Kaine and Emmanuel Josserand write in The Conversation (4.4.17) that a decline in union membership has left a void in the industrial relations landscape, possibly to be filled by a more chaotic movement – ‘alt-unionism’.

‘Business groups in Australia have been engaged in a long-term effort to increase the legal regulation of unions to constrain union activities. But this crackdown on the traditional union movement has created a void starting to be filled by “alt-unionism” – a more amorphous, less predictable vehicle for workers to voice their dissatisfaction.

‘Arguably the restriction of union activity has had some success. For example, the legal right to strike is heavily circumscribed, as highlighted by new secretary of the ACTU Sally McManus. In addition to this the Australian Building and Construction Commission has been re-established meaning tighter restriction on the activities of building unions.

‘Over the past 30 years the percentage of unionists in liberal market economies has been falling. In the wake of this decline steps alt-unionism (also known as “alt-labor” and “improvisational unionism”). It operates outside the established processes of collective bargaining to improve the wages and conditions of workers by other means.

‘… Though unprecedented in recent decades, business could acknowledge some of the problems with the industrial relations system from the union side. It could seek to improve the system to allow unions a legitimate place, with the capacity to adequately represent workers.

‘After all, Australia is at historic lows of industrial action and most employers never have to deal with it. But if the system continues to reduce the capacity of unions to undertake their representative role – we may see worker dissatisfaction expressed through action.’

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