Should Labor break ties with the unions?


Labor weighed down by the UnionsThe 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 discounted. At its best the party benefits from easy access to competent people and a source of revenue. The affiliated unions are an anchor for the party, though anchors can do damage too.

The union movement gains the benefits behind its original creation of the party, including not just access to politics but its very own party political weapon. However, the advantages for unions when 'their' party is in office may be discounted by the disadvantage to them with non-Labor governments. And at the federal level non-Labor has been in office more often than not. So the discount is substantial.

But what also should never be discounted in any calculation of costs and benefits is the fact that many of the benefits flowing from the relationship do not depend on having a formal affiliated link.

Unions could still be the most powerful force in Labor decision-making forums if their members become active branch-members. They not only have numerical power, even though it has decreased greatly, but organisational capacity, which would make them a formidable force even without affiliation.

Unions could also donate generously to the party. They would do so out of disinterested common cause motives and also self-interest, though perhaps not to the same extent. Similarly, union officials would still be well-placed to seek party pre-selection, though their ride into parliament would not be as easy.

Labor would become like other social democratic parties in Europe as well as the Democratic Party in the USA. It would become different not just in community perception but in reality. Whether or not it would become a better or more successful party, the time is right for the link to be seriously reassessed.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Labor Party, Unions



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Existing comments

John's article prompts the question of whether the ALP has ever been a socialist party and so whether it could could ever become a social democrat or democratic socialist party along the lines of the continental European parties. It seems to me that even in its early days, in the rural areas and docks and mines, there was little internal 'democracy' in the labour movement and a great deal of exclusion. In recent times it has abandoned even a semblance of internal democracy and is little more than an oligarchy of career politicians whose connection to working people is becoming more and more remote.

Ginger Meggs | 03 August 2015  

As one would expect, Professor Warhurst has deftly interwoven the historical, the practical and the historical into his fine essay. None of us -- whatever our politics, religion or social class -- can escape any of those influences. The challenge is to recognise them and adjust their relative power as we change and the circumstances of our lives change. Likewise with social organisations like political parties, companies and churches. There are, as he says, very serious consequences (as well as advantages) for the ALP as union membership declines (whether that's for the better or not). so long as that party looks to the unions for its parliamentary membership -- as, overwhelmingly it does, it is closing its eyes to the qualities of that 80% of the population who are either not union members or not members of affiliated unions. That is an enormous pool of ability to ignore: it is not just the ALP which loses, it is the entire nation.

Dr John Carmody | 03 August 2015  

Over half of Federal parliamentary Labor members are ex trade union affiliates. All, including those who haven't come from a union background have been funded in part in their election campaigns by union money. Unions now represent as few as approx 8% of the population of this country and at the most, 20% of the workforce. To be faithful to the mantra of equal representation that they demand on the basis of gender, not necessarily on talent, they should be representing only the 8% they represent through the unions, or alternatively cut the union link including funding and what has become almost compulsory union grooming for pre-selection. We do not deserve pre-selection for any party that is dependent on demonstrated corrupt associations. The modern union is remote from the ideals of the founders of Australian Labor. While the principles of justice were integral and attracted enormous Catholic support for generations, the current mob with their policies around issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the misuse of new age life creating technologies no longer deserve an iota of respect or support from Catholics.

john frawley | 03 August 2015  

Should Labor break tries with the union movement? Well, yes - if for no other reason than to encourage the union movement to set up its own political Party.

David Arthur | 03 August 2015  

Perhaps as a corollary, the link between the Liberal Party and Big Business could be examined.

Robert Liddy | 03 August 2015  

The union movement has always been hand in hand with the labour movement and and should remain so. Change is inevitable but core values should be added to not taken away.

Rhonda Danylenko | 03 August 2015  

"Mutatis mutandis", John Frawley, your strictures would apply equally to the Conservative Party (which masquerades as a "Liberal" Party). And "that mob" -- to use that needlessly sneering phrase -- are intimately linked to Big Business. If you really think it desirable -- I do not, incidentally because I believe in the separation of Church and State -- you could establish a Christian Democratic Party in Australia (as, for example, in Germany) but it would soon become (from European experience) a "Conservative" party under another name. And the avoidance of "corrupt associations"? We'd all support that, but you won't avoid it by supporting the the Liberal Party as an alternative to the ALP. Where power and influence exist, money (and attendant "corruption") soon follows.

Dr John Carmody | 03 August 2015  

P.S. In my earlier response, I MEANT to say that Professor Warhurst had interwoven the historical, the practical and the philosophical. Apologies to all readers. JJC.

Dr John Carmody | 03 August 2015  

John Frawley, you say that 'the current mob with their policies around issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the misuse of new age life creating technologies no longer deserve an iota of respect or support from Catholics', but that is not 'the mob' that currently controls the ALP. Rather it is the shoppies (who may as well be called the DLP) and the other right wingers especially from NSW (none of whom seem to me to fit your description) who exercise absolute control over the party.

Ginger Meggs | 03 August 2015  

the unions should strengthen their influence over the alp and all other political parties but not by direct affiliation as is the present practice. currently most unions are not affiliated with the alp. the most politically influential unions (teachers and the medical unions) are not affiliated. my proposal is for the unions to hold a spear ate political conference with aloo unions involved and directing their policies toward aloo political parer ties.

Jim Macken | 03 August 2015  

With respect, John Frawley and Ginger Meggs, I believe you’re both wrong, for obviously different reasons. John, it’s false, reckless and sweeping to assert that “the modern union is remote from the ideals of the founders of Australian Labor.” Only someone without daily experience of the commitment of many modern unions or officials who work tirelessly and for little material reward in the cause of their members, or someone who has swallowed the ideological mantras of the conservative Party could say this. The decline in membership in unions is directly attributable to the whole bashing of the idea of unionism and solidarity, ironically at a time when union protection is more necessary than it has ever been. Ginger, you say the shoppies and other NCC fronts control the party. I wish it were so simple! The party is rather in thrall to the dull repetition of economic rationalist propaganda and the conservative party itself. Most in the Labour party have been running scared of true redistributist or Keynesian policy for decades, and much as I find many attractive things in Paul Keating, he is a principal culprit in the decline. Labor needs the unions, but more importantly, Australians need unionism, and a proud, not cowed, Labor.

Stephen Kellett | 03 August 2015  

Dear Dr Carmody, I was raised in a very strong Labor Party community and family, am not a member of the Liberal Party and have not voted for either Labor or Liberal Parties for the last 16 years. To me both are corrupt. Catholics have had too many unsuccessful cracks at Christian democracy without success. I suppose it is a fact that Catholicism is itself not a democracy and never has been! I am not, therefore, contemplating forming a Catholic political party. Dear Ginger Meggs, I confess to ignorance as to who runs the policies of the current ALP but I do know that no Catholic can in genuine conscience support a Party of any colour with such policies. Dear Stephen Kellet, As you might glean from the above, Stephen, I have not "swallowed the ideological mantras of the conservative Party. And yes, I have little experience of union officials working tirelessly for little reward. I am far more familiar with their charmed run towards a parliamentary position with its multitude of unearned lifelong privileges as are those on the opposite side of politics regardless of incompetent performance. "A pox on both their houses" seems to me the order of the day. Incidentally, neither do I "eat my greens" with any relish.

john frawley | 03 August 2015  

Stephen, I've worked with and do appreciate the efforts of the work of most union reps (as distinct from the union hierarchy) and for the need for a party to represent working people (both organised and otherwise) and, at a national level, to present an alternative to the economic neoconservatives who would sell us out to the transnationals. (see the recent book by Dennis Glover, 'An Economy is Not a Society'. I mentioned the shoppies (who obviously exert enormous influence, usually negative) but not the NCC (is it still operating?) and the NSW right (it's where Keating came from) and I had in mind some its more notorious members, especially in the NSW parliament. I was a grass roots branch member of the ALP for 30 years until I couldn't stomach anymore the destruction of the membership base by the factional warlords. It would be nice to think that the ALP could 'go back to its roots' and revitalise itself but I don't think it can. Having lost its grass roots membership, it is now reliant on the funds and support of a few big unions and is controlled by the hierarchy of those unions. As such, I can't see that it will never change. Can you give me any good reason to hope?

Ginger Meggs | 03 August 2015  

There are two elements to John Warhurst’s topic: the unions and the Labor party. Their history and fortunes are linked. But there’s an important sub-element, unionism. I appreciate, Ginger, your experience has led you to distinguish between factional power-plays versus on-the-factory-floor union activity, but I’d still assert the dichotomy between officials and organisers isn’t universal or monochrome: union offices are necessary for governance and organisation, and most are unpaid. The great conservative propagandistic success has been to cast a shadow over every union – and thereby every unionist – while corporate cronies get away with as much in a great pea-in-thimble scam. Good unionism doesn’t exist outside ordinary, good unionists, and every time the conservative lie is retailed, in whatever form, it means a nail in a coffin the conservatives are intent on building. John, all I’ll say is your disagreements over Labor party policies shouldn’t make you complicit in retailing the attack on the many dedicated unionists at all levels. The democratic challenges for unions are just a mirror of the challenges facing political parties at the wider social level. You either believe unionism serves a good or you want a society without them.

Stephen Kellett | 04 August 2015  

Frankly, I think the question is not "Should the ALP break its ties with the union movement?" but "should the union movement break its ties with the ALP?". Given the ideology of electoral victory has caused the ALP to abandon its social democratic principles in favour of the neo-classical ascendancy, it seems clear to me that it is the ALP which no longer represents working Australians: in other words, it is the ALP who have already walked away from the union movement, rather than unions no longer being relevant to the ALP. One might argue that the decline in union membership means the union movement no longer represents working people either; however, I think that "decline" is merely a symptom of the abandonment of social democracy by the "left" in its pursuit of electoral credibility - in other words, the commitment to the "pragmatism" of "consensus politics" that, since the Hawke period, has seen the Right dominate the ALP, the factions reduced to fiefdoms controlled by the ALP aristocracy, and the general emphasis shift from articulating ideas to gaining and keeping power. Unions thus need to ask whether their best interests are served by remaining in association with the ALP.

Brendan E Byrne | 11 August 2015  

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