Defending the patch : a labour geography analysis of unions’ construction of and responses to the problem of declining union membership amongst youth

Esders, Linda Patricia (2010) Defending the patch : a labour geography analysis of unions’ construction of and responses to the problem of declining union membership amongst youth. Masters by Research thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


If the trade union movement is to remain an influential force in the industrial, economic and socio/political arenas of industrialised nations it is vital that its recruitment of young members improve dramatically. Australian union membership levels have declined markedly over the last three decades and youth union membership levels have decreased more than any age group. Currently around 10% of young workers aged between 16-24 years are members of unions in Australia compared to 26% of workers aged 45-58 (Oliver, 2008). This decline has occurred throughout the union movement, in all states and in almost all industries and occupations. This research, which consists of interviews with union organisers and union officials, draws on perspectives from the labour geography literature to explore how union personnel located in various places, spaces and scales construct the issue of declining youth union membership. It explores the scale of connections within the labour movement and the extent to which these connections are leveraged to address the problem of youth union membership decline. To offer the reader a sense of context and perspective, the thesis firstly outlines the historical development of the union movement. It also reviews the literature on youth membership decline. Labour geography offers a rich and apposite analytical tool for investigation of this area. The notion of ‘scale’ as a dynamic, interactive, constructed and reconstructed entity (Ellem, 2006) is an appropriate lens for viewing youth-union membership issues. In this non-linear view, scale is a relational element which interplays with space, place and the environment (Howett, in Marston, 2000) rather than being ‘sequential’ and hierarchical. Importantly, the thesis investigates the notion of unions as ‘spaces of dependence’ (Cox, 1998a, p.2), organisations whose space is centred upon realising essential interests. It also considers the quality of unions’ interactions with others – their ‘spaces of engagement‘(Cox, 1998a, p.2), and the impact that this has upon their ability to recruit youth. The findings reveal that most respondents across the spectrum of the union movement attribute the decline in youth membership levels to factors external to the movement itself, such as changes to industrial relations legislation and the impact of globalisation on employment markets. However, participants also attribute responsibility for declining membership levels to the union movement itself, citing factors such as a lack of resourcing and a need to change unions’ perceived identity and methods of operation. The research further determined that networks of connections across the union movement are tenuous and, to date, are not being fully utilised to assist unions to overcome the youth recruitment dilemma. The study concludes that potential connections between unions are hampered by poor resourcing, workload issues and some deeply entrenched attitudes related to unions ‘defending (and maintaining) their patch’.

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ID Code: 40079
Item Type: QUT Thesis (Masters by Research)
Supervisor: McDonald, Paula & Price, Robin
Keywords: industrial relations, union movement, labour geography, spaces of dependence, spaces of engagement, scale, networks of association, connections, youth union membership
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > QUT Business School
Current > Schools > School of Management
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 15 Feb 2011 01:00
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2011 20:01

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