Stephen J. Frenkel and Alice Coolican, Unions Against Capitalism: a Sociological Comparison of the Australian Building and Metal Workers’ Union

George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984.

Russell Lansbury

In Unions Against Capitalism the behaviour of two Australian unions,The Building Workers. Industrial Union (BWIU) and the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union (AMWU) is examined during the period 1976 – 82. Frenkel and Coolican chose these two unions to illuminate the impact of two broad ideological traditions within Australian unionism: labourism and radicalism. The authors. sought to test the hypothesis that the ideology of union leaders and activists strongly influences union pOlicy.

In specific terms, the book addresses two key questions: Are radical unions transmission belts for the propagation of policies decided by senior party officials? or should party-union relationships be seen as a two-way flow of influence? The approach adopted by Frenkel and Coolican in their study of union behaviour is broadly sociological. They distinguish five key elements of union behaviour: union policy, internal union organisation, interunion relations, union tactics and the behaviour of full-time union officials. In Part I of the book, five contextual factors which are thought to have a significant effect on union behaviour are examined. These include: the role of the state, the economic and social terrain, the organisation and behaviour of employers, rank and file orientations and organisation. In Part 2, the authors demonstrate how. these factors influence the five key elements of union behaviour referred to previously. Part 3 of the book focusses on the organisation and dynamics of industrial conflict to illustrate the way in which union leaders, delegates and members use resources and rules to obtain concessions from both employers and governments.

On the basis of their study, Frenkel and Coolican conclude that the BWIU and AMWU are radical ‘rather than revolutionary or reformist (i.e. labourist) in orientation. They report that the two unions have not placed class interests above the interests of their members, nor have they followed a revolutionary path. This is despite the fact that some leaders and full-time officials of the AMWU have been members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) while some BWIU officials have been associated with the Soviet-orientated Socialist Party of Australia (SPA). Furthermore, neither union has sought to replace all forms of industrial regulation with continual direct action, despite the fact that both have espoused policies calling for radical social change.

Among the most interesting aspects of the book are the comparisons made between the AMWU and BWIU. Although similarities and differences between the policies of the two unions are explained primarily in terms of the ideology of the leadership, the actual practices of each union are seen as governed largely by structural factors within their respective industries. Thus, union behaviour is seen to be the product of interaction between structural factors and the activities of union leaders, delegates and members.

Some of the specific findings reported by Frenkel and Coolican may be summarised briefly. Decision making within the BWIU was found to be more concentrated and less centralised that in the AMWU. Full-time officials in the BWIU consolidated their position more effectively and the executive officers at regional levels maintained tighter controls over the behaviour of organizers than was the case in the AMWU. The two unions also differed in the priorities which they accorded various issues, and concentrated their activity at different organisational levels. The BWIU was preoccupied with the problems of illicit employment practices which were addressed mainly at regional level. BWIU organisers tended to act more as rule enforcers. By contrast, the AMWU was more concerned with wage relativities and employment opportunities which were tackled mainly at the national level. Full time officials in the AMWU were more often cast in a negotiating role than their counterparts in the BWIU.

Notwithstanding the above differences, Frenkel and Coolican reported a number of important similarities between the two unions. Each played a central role in their respective industries. Both had succeeded in merging with other organisations which shared similar interests. Furthermore, both unions consistently pursued radical policies and were willing to take industrial action to achieve their objectives. Nevertheless, the recession of the late 1970’s adversely affected activities. Finally, both supported the ALP-ACTU Accord on wages and prices when it was introduced in 1983 (although this period was not covered in the study).

Frenkel and Coolican concluded that the prospects for effective radical unionism, as exemplified by the AMWU.and BWIU, depends a great deal on structural factors. Under conditions of prolonged economic recession workers may succumb to the threat of unemployment. If union leaders compromise on their demands, however, their authority may be reduced. Yet a substantial improvement in economic conditions may also create problems. Union leaders must avoid inflationary wage increases while seeking to improve their members welfare by other means. Neither set of economic circumstances make it easy to sustain radical union policies in a country where labourism has been the dominant ideology among union leaders since the nineteenth century’.

Frenkel and Coolican have written a valuable book. It is the product of painstaking research based on a combination of extensive fieldwork and documentary analysis. This book is very readable and follows a clear structure. The authors have effectively integrated their conceptual framework with their findings. There are, nevertheless, some shortcomings:

The book is heavily descriptive in some areas and provides a large amount of detail (especially in Part 2) which could have been summarised. The authors also acknowledge one of the limitations of their book when they note that their study covers only a brief period of time (1976 – 82) and therefore provides a limited view of the two unions during particular economic and political circumstances. More attention might usefully have been paid to some of the historical factors which shaped the behaviour of the unions over a longer time-span.

Another gap in the study is the role of the employers. Although one chapter is devoted to ‘Employer Behaviour and its Consequences’, and some reference is made to the strategies and tactics of employers within the case studies, these aspects could have received greater attention.

Overall Unions Against Capitalism is an important contribution to the literature on Australian unions and deserves to be widely read.