Paradox: Dependence and Independence - Australian Fabians Former Site - For Page Transfers

Paradox: Dependence and Independence


Trevor Cook
11 March 2014
Unions and Workers
by: Trevor Cook

Author: Trevor Cook was awarded a doctorate by the University of Sydney in 2012. His thesis was on the changing relationship between the ALP and unions with emphasis on the journey from the Accord to Your Rights at Work.


Kevin Rudd saw unions as just so many more interest groups he had to deal with.

As a Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd could imagine a form of social democracy that was not centred on unions.

The Rudd Government was a long way from the corporatist vision of the Accord.

Nevertheless, with two million members, unions are still a big part of Australian society.

Even if unions are interest groups, they are well-resourced and politically potent.

And there is still a high degree of political dependence in the unions-ALP relationship.

One hundred and twenty years later, unions still need a political party that is firmly supportive of collective organisation and collective action.

On the other side, financial and other resources from unions still give the ALP an important electoral advantage.

But there is an emerging paradox, evident in the recent behaviour of both unions and the ALP.

Although they need each other, unions and the ALP also want to be, and be seen to be, more politically independent.

One legacy of the Accord, and the policies of some state governments in recent decades, is that unions don’t want to be seen as apologists for unpopular Labor governments.

Their members won’t cop that.

Nor can unions simply rely on the ideological sympathies of the ALP to ensure they survive and prosper.

The ACTU recognised in the late 1990s and onwards that re-building its membership was critical, and that this re-building would require new approaches and strategies.

This desire for greater independence seems just as true of affiliated unions today as it has been for many unaffiliated unions for some time.

Around the world, centre-left parties have sought to appeal to an expanding middle class.

They have embraced a form of moderate neo-liberalism which is often at odds with union policies.

These parties want to be seen as progressive on what have been called post-industrial issues - like the environment and same sex marriage

These parties don’t want to be positioned by their critics as a legacy of a blue collar past - as outdated political outfits with their best years behind them.

Just as unions have sought to change to address membership decline, the ALP must respond to changing demographics. Some history

Let’s step back for a minute or two.

The early ALP was the vehicle for working class people to participate in our democratic institutions and processes.

In the words of the memorable title of Ross McMullin’s book, this was considered a ‘monstrous travesty’ by the elites of the day.

The first federal caucus of about 24 MPs had just one person with a university degree - in theology.

The Watson Government, the first national Labor government, argued that Labor was the party for everyone who works - not just union members.

Only about ten per cent of the workforce was unionised at the time.

The early Labor party attracted support from small farmers, small mine-owners, shopkeepers and many others we no longer think of as Labor heartland.

In the 19th century, the Australian dream for many immigrants was to own a farm or a small mine - and Labor’s ambitions and policies resonated with those aspirations.

The arbitration system brought a rapid growth in unionisation.

The growing importance of manufacturing and the railways, for instance, helped to change the character of the workforce.

In the wake of the first world war battles over conscription, the ALP also became the party of Irish catholics in an Australia scarred by sectarianism.

At the time, Billy Hughes thought that he might win the second referendum, if only the British would resolve the Irish question.

Farmers drifted off to the Country Party in the 1920s, and small mining had been absorbed by big corporations.

From the 20s to the 50s was the blue-collar heyday, the era of high unionisation rates, socialist objectives and the solid Irish catholic working class in suburbs like those around here.

The blue collar proportion of the Australian workforce began to decline in the 1950s.

And it has continually declined to the point that relatively few people in Australia now think of themselves as part of a continuing working class.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the ALP attracted people from what was known as the ‘new class’ - a growing demographic of university-educated, inner-urban professionals with a new focus on individual rights issues.

In the 1980s, the Hawke and Keating Governments changed Australia’s economy - those changes are still working their way through.

We see their impacts today in the Qantas and car industry issues.

Access to higher education exploded during the Whitlam and Hawke governments.

Most ALP MPs today are university-educated and many are part of the first generation in their families to go to university.

Some lament the disappearance of former blue collar workers from Labor’s leadership ranks - but it is just an inevitable reflection of a changed world.

A world, by the way, that Labor did a lot to create.

Surprisingly, despite this history, the fundamental structure of the ALP has remained essentially the same.

Union affiliation

In particular, there has been little change in the pattern of union affiliation to the ALP.

There are three problems with this pattern:
- It is concentrated on blue collar unions
- It is federal, and fragmented, not national
- It gives considerable power to senior union officials without encouraging the participation of union members in ALP branches.

Today, slightly more than half of Australia’s 2 million union members belong to unions that are affiliated to the ALP.

Very few of these affiliated union members are active in ALP branches.

Union peak organisations - the ACTU and state Labour councils - are not affiliated.

We only rarely see a ‘union’ view inside the ALP, usually we have a right-wing view and a left-wing view.

Though this has changed in recent years, especially on issues related to blue collar jobs - like industry and government procurement policies.

Individual unions are affiliated to state ALP branches - re-enforcing the federal structure of the party.

Some unions are affiliated in some states but not others.

The Accord period stands out as a rare episode of successful union - ALP cooperation at the national level.

Notably, during the Accord period, the ACTU spoke on behalf of the union movement as a whole - and there was a fair degree of discipline among unions and a de-emphasising of factionalism.

The ACTU took the lead on broader issues like Medicare and superannuation.

For the most part, the unions that are affiliated with the ALP today are the same unions that have always been affiliated.

Officials from unions that are not affiliated tend to see little point in seeking affiliation, usually their members would reject any attempt at formal affiliation to the ALP.

This pattern of affiliation has a real impact on candidate selection.

And therefore, what the ALP looks like to voters.

In terms of federal parliamentary representation, particularly in the Senate, there are many people with backgrounds in affiliated unions; but very few with backgrounds in non-affiliated unions or in non-industrial community organisations.

Clearly, affiliation privileges officials from affiliated unions.

And it seems likely that it excludes or discourages others from non-affiliated unions and community organisations.

Unions and voting

An academic paper several years ago by Andrew Leigh, now the member for Fraser, found that electoral support among all unionists for the ALP had been fairly stable at around 70 percent over a long series of federal elections.

In some unions, however, the voting allegiances of members are not much different to that of the broader community.

Overall that means about 600,000 union members identify as supporters of parties other than the ALP.

Mostly they support the LNP, but some also support the Greens.

Many of these LNP voting union members changed their vote in response to the anti-Workchoices campaign, helping to defeat the Howard government.

Interestingly, many senior union officials believe that union affiliation gives the party a much needed connection with ordinary Australians.

This is seen as particularly important given that ALP membership numbers have declined even faster than union membership over the past few decades.

Remember there are just 44,000 ALP members as opposed to two million union members.

I think we should see this as a powerful reason for trying to get more of these union members - from all unions - directly involved in pre-selection ballots.

The direct participation of many more members from all unions would, I think, do a lot to broaden the appeal of the ALP, while retaining its essential character as the party, as Chris Watson said, of all those who work.

The union ‘bosses’ problem

Union affiliation has always left the ALP vulnerable to the charge of control from outside.

The charge has been a popular conservative mantra dating back to the 1890s.

The federal structure of the ALP has added weight to the charge - some of us remember the 36 faceless men charge that bedevilled the Calwell-Whitlam leadership in the sixties.

So potent was the charge that Labor critics still use the word ‘faceless’ to apply to union officials, even when these people regularly appear on television.

The problem is, I think, that the role of senior officials inside the ALP is more real and more apparent than the participation of ordinary union members.

Media coverage of ALP pre-selections routinely identifies candidates as having the support of this or that union, or union boss.

And this union support is often portrayed as decisive in pre-selection contests.

Especially when the outcomes are pre-ordained by some factional deal.

It adds to the perception that the ALP is controlled by unions bosses.

This is unfortunate because unions are far less unpopular than their portrayal in the media would suggest.

The YR@W campaign showed that the union movement can generate a level of community and political support well beyond its membership.

Surveys show that unionism is not particularly on the nose, especially in a period of historically low levels of industrial disputation.

Union bosses, on the other hand, are frequently seen as too powerful, unelected and so on.

Paradoxically perhaps, I think the ALP’s union problem would be much diminished if union members were more involved in candidate selection and party forums; and particular unions and union bosses were far less prominent.

Union transformation

I started researching my thesis in the wake of the 2007 election and the Your Rights at Work campaign.

The extent to which YR@W helped the ALP win government back in 2007 is open for debate - perhaps it was mostly an ‘It’s Time’ phenomenon, and some have argued that climate change won more votes for Rudd than workplace relations.

Nevertheless, YR@W was the biggest, most successful, non-party political campaign in Australian history.

Not bad for a union movement that was being pronounced dead after a precipitous fall off in membership in the 1990s.

It was also just about the only time that a union movement has reversed a conservative push on industrial relations anywhere in the Western world in recent decades.

In theoretical terms, the Australian union movement has been remarkably successful in transitioning from a reliance on industrial rights to a much greater use of citizen rights.

Industrial rights have been eroded by successive legislative changes and declining membership.

Citizen rights are the legal rights we have as citizens to demonstrate, protest, challenge in the courts etc.

Australian union leaders looked to the USA for inspiration because American unions had enjoyed some success in building membership and winning campaigns through the use of citizen rights.

The ACTU has adopted a strategy of turning unions into campaigning organisations.

ACTU leaders from Greg Combet onwards have championed the need for the union movement to be politically independent.

Beyond their immediate efficacy, campaigning and political independence are important to unions because they are believed to be able to increase membership numbers and member commitment to unions.

The last national ALP review noted the ACTU’s membership strategies and suggested that the ALP should learn from them.

In the lead-up to the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd took steps to distance himself from the union movement - wishing to be seen as independent.

There was a union campaign and an ALP campaign - complementary, but separate.

After the election, union leaders returned to what can be described as the insider game.

There was a greater concern to protect the ALP government and to avoid criticising it publicly.

Many senior union officials found it easy to campaign against John Howard but, almost impossible to criticise publicly the sometimes disappointing policies and actions of the Rudd Government.

Member engagement and the relationships with other social groupings that were integral to Your Rights at Work also tended to dissipate - once the immediate threat of John Howard had gone away.

Public agitation by politically independent unions is hard to reconcile with the restraint and reliance on insider influence associated with the old relationship between union leaders and ALP parliamentarians.

Party reform

Traditionally, the ALP has been very reluctant to embrace major organisational change.

Change is hard to achieve and it can often result in significant political cost.

Several of the union officials and federal ALP MPs I interviewed for my thesis, volunteered the opinion that Simon Crean’s leadership was fatally damaged by his efforts to achieve a uniform fifty-fifty split between branches and unions at state conferences.

The magic of the fifty fifty idea was that the ALP is now officially in a partnership with unions.

The partnership image, I think, was designed to suggest some greater independence of the party from its union base.

It wasn’t successful.

Failing to change its organisational structures in any significant formal sense, the ALP has tended to modernise by working around its inherited structures.

National Conference has been greatly expanded, diminishing the federal nature of its structure and giving parliamentary leaders a far greater say.

National and State conferences, and therefore branch members, have lost much of their policy making authority, making parliamentary caucuses correspondingly more powerful.

Unfortunately, these changes have only added to the perception that the party is unduly influenced by a small number of senior union officials. Ideologies

Clearly, I see the ALP’s problems in organisational and structural terms.

I think ideology, branding, messages, narrative and the rest of it are secondary problems.

Improve the organisation and you’ll end up with a party that is more in touch with and more representative of its electoral base and more appealing to swinging voters.

Ignoring structure, and focusing on the ephemera of marketing, is just a way of avoiding the harder problems.


What can be done?

Given the ALP’s historical unwillingness to embrace substantial organisational reforms, the best hope is probably an incremental program of relatively modest measures.

Part of the answer lies in greater involvement by members of all unions in pre-selections.

In addition, as with the social unionism of the YR@W campaign, the ALP needs to finds ways of encouraging activists and members from non-industrial organisations to get involved.

Perhaps that means going beyond union members and opening pre-selections to a broader base of supporters and donors.

All this adds up to more internal democracy.

Genuine pre-selections will diminish the perception of external influence and produce a greater diversity of candidates with more community links.

The logical next step is to open up pre-selections for upper house candidates.

Reducing the prominence and power of union bosses might also help them pursue a greater degree of political independence without any reduction in the idea that the ALP is first and foremost a party for workers and unionists.

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