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Should Labor break ties with the unions?

  • 03 August 2015

The formal link through affiliation between trade unions and the Labor Party is sacred in many quarters, has sustained both sides of the relationship for 120 years, and makes the party distinctive. Traditionalists argue for preserving the status quo on this basis but there must be better reasons for its retention.

The revelations of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, despite its anti-Labor political origins, may eventually generate change. But the question has been around for decades now, and is considered routinely but unenthusiastically by every major internal party organisational review. The recent Labor National Conference wouldn't touch it.

Any move to break the link would certainly be vigorously opposed. Structural changes are always difficult to make because those embedded in the existing structure oppose removal of the advantages that the status quo grants them.

Furthermore, whatever the longer term benefits, the ensuing disruption would hurt Labor. Structural change seems not just self-indulgent, but gets in the way of priorities like campaigning to win elections.

The relationship has three elements.

The first is the influence the link gives unions within the party. Affiliated unions achieve voting strength within party forums according to their registered membership numbers, which now stand at 50 per cent of conference delegates. In a zero-sum game, bloc voting by unions limits the influence of ordinary branch members. It also advances the interests within the party of affiliated unions over other unions.

The second is that the link is a conduit for money and personnel to flow from the union movement into the party. Labor depends hugely upon the unions financially, not just through the regular flow of money for daily administration, but for election campaign expenditure and broader pre-election political campaigns such as the Fair Work campaign in 2005–06.

Union officials are also a major source of Labor MPs, especially in upper houses such as the Senate.

The third element is the reputational impact the link has on the standing of both Labor and the unions. Union unpopularity in the community adversely influences popular perception of the party. More generally it enables the party to be painted as a sectional party which favours some citizens to the detriment of others.

In other words, especially as the percentage of the workforce who is unionised has fallen dramatically, Labor's structural relationship makes it less representative of the wider community than it should be.

The link does bring important benefits for both sides that should never be