Trade Unions and the ALP

Author: Mark Aarons is an Australian journalist and author. He was a political adviser to NSW Premier Bob Carr.

1.    Introduction

Thanks for the Fabian Society’s invitation.  It’s ironic that it should be Doug who I’m debating – we share many things in common – from membership of the same ALP Faction (NSW Left), militant but constructive union backgrounds – to admiration for his policy contributions in areas such as the importance of the manufacturing sector – as well as the general political orientation of the AMWU.

However the matters for discussion tonight are ones of principle for me (and many others in the ALP) and oftentimes you have to debate things out within the family.

 

2.    Issue is not unions

At the start – I emphasise that this isn’t about unions – unions have a largely proud history in Australia – they continue to play a vital role in many, many ways for working people – and I hope they will continue to play an even stronger role into the future.

I might note that I’ve been an active union member for 35 years – will die a member and a true believer in the contribution of unions and their enormous role in Australian history.

I also strongly advocate that working people should have a major voice in politics.

In that Doug and I share a common outlook.

 

3.    Key Issues

Is the present structure the appropriate way to empower working people in politics – given that rank and file union members have no say in whether their union affiliates to the ALP or not, or which faction of Labor politics their union belongs to, or who represents them at State and National Conferences and what policies will be supported at these gatherings?

Future of unions – will unions turn outwards towards the youth of Australia who are not joining in the same numbers or with the same enthusiasm as former generations – or will they stay rooted in inner-ALP factional politics of little relevance to both their own members and to the vast number of non-unionists?

Future of the ALP – will it rejuvenate and become a modern centre-left party in which party members – and members of affiliated unions – make policy, select MPs and elect its leadership or will it remain dominated by a handful of unrepresentative union secretaries who exercise disproportionate power?

Future of government in Australia – will Labor become the natural party of federal government and transform the country long-term or remain only a transitory force allowing the Tories to set the long-term agenda for the nature of our country?

 

4.    History of the Labour Movement

It’s a given of Labour Movement history that unions brought the ALP into being to ensure that workers’ voices were heard in the political arena.

Not until 1916 that unions took a direct power role in the ALP in the wake of Hughes’s betrayal over conscription.

Australia was a vastly different place then – class played a central role in determining how people voted and how a great deal of day-to-day politics was conducted and how policies were developed and implemented – whether by the Labor or Tory parties.

The decline in unions over the last 25 years arises from complex factors – the increasing complexity of class structure, including further development of what has been called the “labour aristocracy” and the movement of some traditional workers into small business/contractor roles, the increasing sophistication and education of the working class – the adoption of market solutions by Labor governments to problems that hitherto had been seen as requiring public intervention – and the collapse of the socialist model that had inspired the left of the Labour Movement – including traditional social democracy and the command economy model.

 

5.    Current State of the Labour Movement

Whatever mix of such issues has brought about today’s situation the numbers are dramatic – 25 years ago around 50% of the workforce belonged to unions while today it’s down to about 20% with 15% in the private sector – which historically is where the sharpest class struggle was experienced in Australia.

With changes in Australian society has come changes in union membership – when I was NSW Branch President of the PSU in the 1990s we surveyed our membership nationally after the 1993 federal election and were astounded to discover that they had voted pretty much as the rest of the electorate – i.e., large numbers voting for the Coalition and minor parties.

In 2005 Unions NSW had polling done by AusPoll which established that almost 50% of unionists had voted for parties other than the ALP at the 2004 federal election, while 41% voted for Labor – just a little above the national vote.

 

6.    The Current System

Given these dramatic changes the current system in which union leaderships mostly decide whether to affiliate or not to the ALP without reference to their memberships flouts central traditions and principles of democratic decision-making and membership involvement.

At the very least members should be consulted directly about affiliation – as well as the expenditure of union money on party political campaigns.

There should also be an explicit capacity for individual unionists to opt out of affiliation by directing that none of their union dues should go towards affiliation payments.

Delegates to State and National Conferences should not be handpicked by union secretaries but elected by the membership as part of the regular round of elections – with the plurality of political tendencies in the membership freely represented at policy forums and voting on the issues not as a factional bloc representing only the political orientation of the leadership.

 

7.    Changing the System

Such measures would go some way to making the current system more democratic – but more fundamental changes are required.

A modern centre-left party needs to reflect the society which it hopes to lead – and mould the values of – so that the nation reflects its core ideas.

This requires a major restructure of the ALP – affiliated unions should not exercise power at any greater proportion than their representation in the workforce – I estimate that to be currently about 10-12%.

The rest of the power should be exercised by the membership and the membership alone – unless the membership decides that there should be other sectors of society directly represented in the policy process, e.g., conservationists, the women’s movement, social organisations etc.

 

8.    What are the goals?

A better, democratically elected leadership – this is exemplified by direct membership election of the National President instead of the factional fixes of the past – who can argue with the election of people of the calibre of John Faulkner, Barry Jones, Mike Rann, Warren Mundine, Carmen Lawrence and Linda Burney – just to name a few?

This should be extended to all party officials – both State and National and perhaps to all Senators and members of State upper houses – this would end forever the type of morally corrupt and bankrupt leadership of the NSW Right that has dominated this State for decades – take a look at who’s in the Iemma Ministry or on the backbench or who the key party officials are today and you can directly blame the power of right-wing unions for keeping this faction alive and running.

Just to give one example – in an open ballot for National President ALP members throughout Australia saw John Faulkner’s integrity, courage and intellect for what they are – but at the NSW ALP Conference he couldn’t get number one on the 2004 Senate ticket ahead of Steve Hutchins whose name is scarcely known by ALP members let alone in the community.  Yet this is the system that is operated under the tight control of a handful of union secretaries who control the right’s numbers at the NSW ALP Conference.

Furthermore it’s time to ensure that the modern ALP reflects the community more broadly by ending the rule under which people cannot join without first joining a union.  This excludes many people of talent and places the entire prerequisite for membership on one aspect of Labor’s history and values.  And it is shared values which should count as the prerequisites for membership – not that union membership should be discouraged – it should be actively encouraged – but adherence to broad political and ethical values should predominate.

By shared values I mean – the good of the community, not just the individual; fairness and equity in the provision of essential services, such as education and health, to meet fundamental human needs; good and efficient government that intelligently intervenes in the economy when necessary to overcome market failure in the form of human-rights abuses, ruination of the environment, price-fixing and the like; an educated and skilled workforce as a precondition of a vital economy that generously rewards risk and hard work while ensuring that disparities in wealth do not become egregious; a re-assertion of the rule of law and human rights at home and abroad; renewed respect for an independent judiciary; a magnanimous settling of our historic debt to Indigenous Australia; and strong investment in the future, especially preserving our natural environment and co-operating in broad-based international efforts to roll back global warming.

Finally the prevailing view among right-wing powerbrokers that the ALP does not require a mass membership should be flatly rejected. According to this view, all that is needed is a modern, finely tuned electoral machine with the capacity to top-up public funding with corporate and union donations and run effective election campaigns. This would reduce Labor’s historic struggle for the ‘light on the hill’ to a meaningless battle against the conservatives, waged merely for the spoils of office, and without the creative input of the Australian community. Only a modern, Labor Party embodying the highest social and ethical values from our national history can succeed, and deserve to succeed, in replacing the moribund Coalition as the natural government of Australia.