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Who are Australia’s union members? You may be surprised

Source: Roy Morgan Single Source (Australia), October 2015-September 2016, n=6,370.

Amid recent news of public servants at the Australian Tax Office and Department of Human Services each crushing proposed workplace deals for the third consecutive time, the latest findings from Roy Morgan Research reveal that workers employed in Public Administration and Defence are 65% more likely than the average Australian in paid employment—across many other industries— to be members of a trade union.

As of September 2016, just over 11.2 million Australians were employed in either full- or part-time roles. Of those, 17.4% (or 1.9 million) reported belonging to a trade union.

Among the country’s Public Administration and Defence workers, union membership is well above the national average, sitting at 28.7% (or 201,000 people). Other industries with elevated levels of union membership include Electricity, Gas and Water at 27.3% (or 98,000 people); and Transport and Storage at 23.5% (130,000).

With 27.5% of its workers (almost 1 million people) belonging to a union, Community Services—spanning staff in hospitals, nursing homes and veterinary clinics, education, museums, art galleries and libraries, welfare and religious institutions—accounts for close to half of the nation’s total union members.

Union membership by industry


Source: Roy Morgan Single Source (Australia), October 2015-September 2016, n=6,370.

Breaking union membership down into specific ANZSCO (Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations) groups, Education Professionals come out on top, with 42.4% of them (383,000 people) union members; followed by Health Professionals (39.2%/207,000) and Protective Service Workers such as firefighters, police and custodial security officers (38.1%/51,000).

Surprisingly, given the high profile of the CFMEU, Roy Morgan data shows that only 11.5% of Construction Trades Workers, 13.8% of Construction and Mining Labourers, and 9.7% of Farm, Forestry and Garden Workers are members of a union: a total of around 37,000 people.

Australia’s 10 most and 10 least unionised occupation groups


Source: Roy Morgan Single Source (Australia), October 2015-September 2016, n=6,370.

Analysis by political party supported

Less surprising, given the Australian Labor Party’s long association with trade unions, is the fact that 28.1% of ALP voters belong to a union—more than double the proportion of L-NP voters (11.8%) and substantially ahead of Greens voters (20.2%).

Other contributing factors

Of course, like so many things in life, union membership is also influenced by a person’s socio-economic status—although not in the way one might think. Rather than being most prevalent among workers at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, union membership peaks among those from the relatively affluent C quintile* (21.0%).  It is least widespread among workers from the less advantaged quintiles: E (14.2%) and FG (12.9%).

Similarly, Roy Morgan data shows that lower-income workers are less likely than their higher-paid peers to be members of unions. In fact, the mean income of Australia’s union members across all industries and occupation groups is $73,000, compared with the $64,000 average for non-union members.

Union membership by socio-economic quintile and income


Source: Roy Morgan Single Source (Australia), October 2015-September 2016, n=6,370.

Age also appears to have a bearing on union membership, with the 50-64 year-old bracket being by far the most likely to belong to a trade union (25.7%). Workers aged between 35 and 49 are slightly above average (19.3%), while the younger demographics are even less likely to be union members than those of retirement age.

Union membership by age


Source: Roy Morgan Single Source (Australia), October 2015-September 2016, n=6,370.

* NB: A note on socio-economic quintiles: Roy Morgan Single Source collects thousands of data points from each survey respondent, allowing us to segment the Australian population in many ways. Socio-economic quintiles segment the population based on education, income and occupation, with AB being the top-scoring quintile and FG being the lowest.

Michele Levine, CEO, Roy Morgan Research, says:

“Trade union membership is currently at its lowest point since Roy Morgan Research started measuring it in 1999. Between October 1999 and September 2000, 25.7% of working Aussies were members of a union: it’s been trending steadily downward since then. But with reports of workplace exploitation and large-scale redundancies regularly appearing in the media, not to mention the close ties between the ALP and the ACTU, and regular questions about the real or perceived ‘conflict of interest’ between trade union officials and super funds, there is no doubt that unions remain socio-politically relevant.

“As our data shows, some industries and occupations maintain a strong union culture: teachers of all levels, professionals involved in healthcare, protective services employees and public servants. But as we have also shown, political inclination also correlates with whether someone belongs to a union; as do political attitudes. For example, trade union members are 20% less likely than average employed Australian to agree with the statement, ‘The government is doing a good job running the country’ and 13% more likely to agree that ‘I don’t trust the current Australian government.’ Tellingly, they’re also more likely to agree that ‘I need to have security in my job.’

“However, when key factors such as socio-economic advantage (or lack thereof), income and age are added to the mix, it becomes clear that the time-worn image of unions being a resource for unskilled and blue-collar workers to protect themselves against unfair employment conditions may need some updating. The evidence from our nationwide survey of over 50,000 Australians shows union membership is lower—not higher—among these lower socio-economic, lower-income groups.

“Whether you are an employer keen to understand what makes your staff in unions tick, or a trade union wishing to address dwindling membership numbers, Roy Morgan’s deep data on the Australian workforce is a springboard to greater understanding and communication.”

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About Roy Morgan

Roy Morgan is the largest independent Australian research company, with offices throughout Australia, as well as in Indonesia, the United States and the United Kingdom. A full service research organisation specialising in omnibus and syndicated data, Roy Morgan has over 70 years’ experience in collecting objective, independent information on consumers.

Margin of Error

The margin of error to be allowed for in any estimate depends mainly on the number of interviews on which it is based. Margin of error gives indications of the likely range within which estimates would be 95% likely to fall, expressed as the number of percentage points above or below the actual estimate. Allowance for design effects (such as stratification and weighting) should be made as appropriate.

Sample Size

Percentage Estimate


25% or 75%

10% or 90%

5% or 95%