Handbook of Employment and Society
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Handbook of Employment and Society

Working Space

Edited by Susan McGrath-Champ, Andrew Herod and Al Rainnie

This Handbook deepens and extends the engagement between research concerned with work and employment and labour geography. It links fundamental concepts concerning the politics of place that human geographers have developed in recent years with the world of work.
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Chapter 19: Contested Space: Union Organising in the Old Economy

Bradon Ellem


1 Bradon Ellem Much has been written to explain union membership decline and the adoption and impact of various strategies of renewal. Australia is no exception to this, for it is a country in which unionism seemed to be thoroughly embedded in numerical, institutional and even cultural terms. At the height of the postwar boom, the proportion of the workforce belonging to a union was, on some counts, 60 per cent. In 1976, when the current statistical set began, it was still 51 per cent but in every year since then ‘union density’ has fallen. More alarmingly still, the total number of union members began to fall in 1992. With a growing labour force, this meant that the fall in union density was cataclysmic. It fell from just under 40 per cent in 1992 to less than 19 per cent in 2007. In the same period private sector union density fell from 29 to under 14 per cent (ABS, 1992–2005; ABS, 2006–2008; Bain and Price, 1980; Peetz, 1998).2 Amid this crisis, the peak body of Australian unions, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), adopted ‘organising’ as its response, a strategy which represented a conscious mimicking of activity in the USA where unions have long faced state and employer hostility. In the rich body of literature examining these massive disruptions to social and industrial relations, and organised labour’s response thereto, there has been no detailed consideration of the geography of the crisis. We know little about the...

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