When Tina Newsome started working at the former SkyCity cinemas in the early 2000s, it was a humiliating experience.

"The problems were so evident - casual work, the way [staff] were treated by managers, the pay, health and safety - pretty much everything really," she says.

Hours were unpredictable. Sometimes people would be sent home from Auckland's Queen St cinemas after working only an hour.

"People were coming into the city, paying for parking or public transport, to be in work for an hour. It cost more than they earned," says Newsome.

Pay rates were only just above the legal minimum wage, with younger workers on youth rates. But even worse was the way managers behaved.

"Quite often they would yell at staff, most of the time in front of customers," Newsome says. "If the till was out at the end of the night [staff] would be made to pay it back straight away. Basically, it was quite degrading."

By her account, it all changed when the workers brought in Matt McCarten's Unite Union. Newsome, a delegate for five years, signed up most of the employees on the Queen St site.

"We went from zero to 90 per cent of the staff signed up," she says. "There were massive changes when the union came in."

Newsome's pay jumped by $1.50 an hour in the first collective agreement. Lower youth rates were abolished. A five-hour weekly minimum for working hours was established and most workers ended up working more than that.

And the managers stopped yelling at staff in front of customers.

"Managers started seeing customers themselves," she says.

Newsome, now 30, rejoined Unite when she took a job at Mercury Energy's Penrose call centre last year, a few months after the union signed up its first members there. Her co-delegate, Lisa Savusa, 23, says the union supports people when problems arise.

"They're more educational in terms of our rights," she says.

Nineteen years after the old national awards system was swept away by the Employment Contracts Act, do success stories like these suggest that unions still have a future?

To put it politely, the evidence is challenging. Victoria University's annual surveys show union membership plunged from 45 per cent of wage and salary earners in 1989 to 22 per cent a decade later and 21 per cent at the end of last year.

Membership has held up well in the public sector, where 66 per cent of employees are still unionised.

But in the private sector unions have melted away, keeping only 12 per cent of employees. And that's not counting legions of self-employed contractors.

Unite call centre organiser Tom Buckley says that when he met a new group of 10 workers this week, only one had ever been a union member and more than half did not know what a union was.

"I get that question all the time: haven't you guys disappeared yet?" he says.

A 2003 national survey of 1000 people led by Dr Peter Haynes, now at Waikato University's management school, found the biggest barrier to reviving unions was simply public indifference.

Asked whether they would be better or worse off with a union in their workplace, 69 per cent of those in non-unionised workplaces said it would make no difference. Only 15 per cent thought they would be better off, and 16 per cent said they would be worse off.

Technological and economic changes have wiped out many of the manual jobs that once filled union ranks, and many skilled people now working in offices and sales jobs feel in tune with, and valued by, their bosses.

In Haynes' survey, 85 per cent of workers felt relations between employees and management were good.

"The nature of unionism has changed enormously from my grandfather's day in a silk mill," Haynes says.

"There is less class consciousness. Just yesterday I discussed this with my postgraduate students and none of them felt that they actually belonged in a class."

Yet even in this apparently barren landscape, Haynes' data also offers unions three grounds for hope.

First, his analysis of where the unions lost jobs in the 1990s shows it was more a case not of workers choosing to leave unions but of unions, once they lost the legal ballast of national awards, leaving workers stranded because they could no longer afford to service small sites.

Asked whether they would join a union if asked, 32 per cent of those in non-union workplaces said they were very likely or fairly likely to join.

Secondly, Haynes notes that surveys before every election since 1990 have found a surprising persistence of public support for unions.

The number agreeing that "trade unions are necessary to protect workers" slipped only from 72 per cent in 1993 to 59 per cent in 1999, and actually crept back up in the last three elections to 70 per cent in 2008.

And thirdly, in contrast to the Victoria University data, the election surveys provide the first hint that union membership itself may have also begun to recover - up from 21 per cent of employees in 2002 to 26 per cent in 2005 and 25 per cent in 2008.

There is also some research evidence that unions can win their workers a better deal.

Victoria University's latest survey found that wages in collective agreements rose by 4.2 per cent in the year to June, when national wage rates rose by only 1.6 per cent.

"Historically, the collective bargaining increase typically is slightly above the labour cost index," says Victoria's Dr Stephen Blumenfeld.

On the ground, unions can tell other stories like the cinema chain account.

National Distribution Union retail secretary Maxine Gay says her union has won pay rises for Progressive Enterprises supermarket staff of 3.5 per cent last year and 3 per cent this year while hundreds of workers in the non-unionised Pak'n Save and New World chains are still on minimum wages.

"Quite a number of them are on youth rates for the first three months. We don't have youth rates," she says.

Overseas, some unions have built what has been called "open-source unionism", using the internet to offer networks and advice for workers in small workplaces.

Unite's McCarten says he plans to offer from next week a "National Unite Agreement" that will be open to any worker in the country.

"It won't have the pay rates in there but it will have protected rest breaks, no 90-day trial period, and things like that," he says.

The Council of Trade Unions also plans to launch, in November, a new body code-named "Together" offering low-fee membership to any worker, including contractors.

"Our members say they want their kids and families to join, but there is no union for them to join in their workplaces," says council president Helen Kelly.

The new body will provide personal advocacy and advice to workers and will pass them on to full union services where feasible.

"We've done our research on this, there is a lot of demand for it," Kelly says. "People do want to be part of something that protects workers' rights."

- Simon Collins is a union member.