Dumping the Unions


It’s been a long time since the Australian Labor Party was the Party of Australian labour.

Ever since former NSW Premier Neville Wran and former Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating began ‘walking both sides of the street’ as the spin doctors described their simultaneous courting of Big Business and hoodwinking of Middle Australia the ALP has been almost as much a corporate Party as the Liberals.

With the solitary exception of WorkChoices, the interests of major corporations have increasingly prevailed in Labor’s collective thinking over the interests of ordinary working stiffs whether they wear blue, white or pink collars; whether they’re paid $30,000 or $60,000 per annum.

I’m still waiting for a prominent Labor politician to denounce the obscenity, the sheer immorality, of the $33.5 million salary paid to Macquarie Bank chief Allan Moss a money shuffler who  thinks he is worth 335 life-saving doctors. Even John Howard denounced his salary as ‘over the top.’

So why keep up the pretence? Why maintain a formal relationship between the ALP and the unions, which is just as damaging for both of them?

As a unionist of some 20 years standing, I believe in the unions’ right to political activism, to influence and even pressure politicians for the benefit of working families. They have as much right as corporate Australia to get the best deal for their constituency. Even with falling union membership, unions still represent a good 20 per cent of the workforce, which is a far bigger cohort than the handful of obscenely paid executives represented by the business lobbyists.

But unions are ill-served by a formal affiliation with Labor. Put simply, the Party takes advantage of union members, while sticking a thumb in their eyes when it suits the ALP politically.

For example, at the 2003 and 2007 NSW State elections, the union hierarchy endorsed and campaigned for a Labor Government that had devastated the Common Law rights of injured workers to sue negligent employers. While Bob Carr and Morris Iemma’s Governments took generous donations from the top end of town, especially the property developers, injured often permanently maimed workers were told the loss of a limb, eyesight or hearing was worth a desultory sum.

In 2001, in response to the Carr Government’s proposed changes to WorkCover, the Law Society of NSW highlighted the plight of a 25-year-old machinist who, having lost two fingers in an industrial accident, would go from receiving total compensation of almost $300,000 to receiving nothing.

NSW Treasurer Michael Costa has never denied or, more precisely, has never been able to deny telling union representatives that he believes the State has 20 per cent more public employees than it needs. Once the Federal election is out of the way, Costa will bare his fangs.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

As a tariff-slashing Federal Treasurer, Paul Keating helped shrink the industrial workforce of the Illawarra from about 30,000 employees to about 9000, while raising its unemployment level to 10 per cent. Later, out of office and utterly unremorseful, he told the retrenched workers mostly middle-aged men with limited skills, whose lives he had upended to simply get other jobs. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) squealed at the time but, come the next election, still wrote a cheque to Keating’s old Party.

Rather than forking over vast sums in annual affiliation fees and unconditional campaign donations to the ALP machine, unions would be better off endorsing specific candidates, including progressive Independents, who support a pro-working families agenda. Union members could study a candidate’s record of support for employee rights, and their position on outrageous executive perks and tax lurks then decide who truly deserves union endorsement. Corporate Labor flunkies need not apply.

The current system of union affiliation works well for certain compliant union officials who hanker for seats in Parliament or well-paid, part-time sinecures on government boards. But it compromises the unions’ ability to defend the interests of working Australians by, for example, opposing free trade deals that Labor MPs embrace but which destroy entire industries.

Nor is this kind of union affiliation a useful relationship for the ALP, which can be characterised as representing a sectional if worthy interest. As the distinguished historian of Australian liberalism, Judith Brett, has explained, the strength of Robert Menzies’s Party was that it could claim to represent all Australians, not merely one social class or interest group.

A Labor Party with cordial, but informal, relations with the union movement could market itself as a broader social democratic coalition, attracting talent from outside the current narrow gene pool of former paid union officials (as opposed to workplace delegates) and ex-political staffers.

In this current round of Federal Labor pre-selections, the cozy arrangement between the Head Office machine and union bosses endured. The pre-selection of ACTU Secretary Greg Combet for a Hunter Valley seat is easily defensible his leadership of the campaign for justice for victims of the asbestos company James Hardie elevated him above the ruck to the status of genuine community leader. But you would have to work overtime to justify as good for Labor’s image or in the interests of working families the endorsements of AMWU boss Doug Cameron, Australian Workers Union heavy Bill Shorten and Combet’s ambitious Deputy, Richard Marles.

Will Cameron, for example, pledge to vote against any free trade deals that destroy what is left of Australian manufacturing, even if it means violating caucus solidarity and risking expulsion from the Party? Will Shorten and Marles insist on a tax system that offers genuine relief to Middle Australia, while demanding their friends in the executive suites finally pay their fair share?

In Keating’s old seat of Blaxland, the NSW machine passed over one of the most impressive intellects in Australian jurisprudence, University of NSW Law Professor George Williams, in favour of Bob Carr’s former staffer-turned-corporate affairs operative, Jason Clare. We all await his penetrating insights into the national debate.

If Labor wants to be a Party of no fixed values or ideology, ingratiating itself with big business while populating itself with careerists from the union hierarchy, let it do so without taking advantage of the resources of rank and file union members.

Andrew West will be appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, in conversation with Radio National Breakfast‘s Fran Kelly about his book Inside The Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteful (Pluto, 2006), a study of the clash inside Australia’s upper middle class between ‘materialists’ and ‘culturists.’ 1:00pm, Friday 1 June 2007, The Mint, 10 Macquarie Street, Sydney.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.