The union movement has been in steady decline since the 1980s and in the private sector barely one in 10 workers are now a member.
Among the reasons for the decline are legal and other changes in recent decades that have shifted power to employers. The United Workers Union promises an aggressive industrial approach which could mean more strikes, which are at historic lows.
“The crisis has many parents,” Mr Kennedy said in an interview with The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald.
“The reality is progressive politics in this country has not been winning debates about collective responses to issues for a long time,” he said.
Mr Kennedy said by winning industrial battles, the UWU could give millions of workers a sense of power and put them “back in the centre of the political contest in this country” and “change the nature of democracy in this country”.
He describes inequality as a “cancer” in Australia that diminishes the lives of many and stops them from living “full lives”. Redistribution of wealth “is a key impact we want to have”.
The merged unions have both been heavily involved in campaigning against wage theft in industries such as hospitality, farms and cleaning. Many of the new union’s members are low paid and in insecure work. About a third come from non-English speaking backgrounds.
The underpayment of wages has become a major national issue after a string of scandals at big companies such as Woolworths, Bunnings, the ABC, at high-end restaurants and among labourers on farms.
The Morrison government is moving to toughen penalties for employers and is considering an ACTU proposal to make it easier for underpaid workers to make claims at the Fair Work Commission.
However, unions have struggled to transform widespread public angst around slow wages growth and unlawful wage underpayment into greater membership numbers. The surprise defeat of Bill Shorten’s Labor at this year’s election dashed union hopes of more worker-friendly laws.
The new union has also ditched more than a 100 years of union practice in Australia, abolishing the structures of state and federal branches, as part of a radical overhaul.
“That’s not the system we are in any more, employers are national, they’re global,” said Jo-anne Schofield, who is the new union’s national president. “It did require a root-and-branch review of what a union for the future might look like.”
Instead of the old structure, the UWU will set up around industries and as a single national union, Ms Schofield said. Its core industry areas include aged care, farms, food and supermarket supply chains. Ms Schofield said the scale of the new union and its new structure would allow it to pursue a positive agenda to grow. “We’ve been in too many fights, too many defensive fights.”
The union movement went through a series of mega-mergers in the 1990s, few of which were successful. Ms Schofield said her old union, the former United Voice, had merged and amalgamated more than 60 times in its history.
RMIT professor of workplace law, Anthony Forsyth, said the merger was “really significant” as it involved “two of the best unions in the country joining together”.
They had been innovative in recruiting migrant and young workers, areas where many other unions had struggled to have a presence.
“You could view it as a last roll of the dice, if their approach and the innovations they’ve been using can’t make it work, there’s not much hope for unions.”
Nonetheless, Professor Forsyth said he had “quite a lot of confidence” it would be a success.
Mr Kennedy said the UWU, which has two-thirds of its members in the private sector, has set ambitious targets for growth. It wants to grow from about 150,000 to 200,000 members within five years.
There are up to two million workers eligible to join the union as it has the right, under workplace laws, to represent workers in such a large number of industries. That potential growth has implications for Labor nationally, where the factional numbers are currently finely balanced between left and right factions.
“The new union will be part of the left,” Mr Kennedy said. “It’s not a big deal, (the union) will form views based on what’s important to its members and prosecute them in party forums, whether that’s right, left or indifferent doesn’t matter to us.”
In the byzantine world of Labor factional politics, the move threatens to destabilise delicate power arrangements. It could tip the balance of power in the party to the left at next year’s national conference for the first time since 1979, according to senior left and right Labor sources.
In Victoria, senior Labor right sources said the contingent of seven NUW-linked MPs will remain in the right. Over time that may change as senior MPs such as minister Martin Pakula and Treasurer Tim Pallas retire and are replaced.
One senior Labor right source was confident little would change and said the NUW contingent in the Victorian parliament were “independent of thought”.
He couldn’t see them “volunteering to be a new asset of [Left faction leader] Kim Carr”.
Ben Schneiders is an investigative journalist at The Age and has reported extensively on wage theft, corruption, business, politics and the labour movement. A three-time Walkley Award winner, he has been part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.