It's Time – For The Unions To Quit Labor


The issue of the relationship and affiliation between the ALP and unions has been bubbling away for some years — and it needs to be resolved. Only recently former PM Bob Hawke called for an overhaul of the relationship.

The usual arguments for affiliation are firstly, that the unions founded the ALP, and secondly, the need to maintain union influence in the party.

Because the unions founded the ALP is no basis for continuing that arrangement if it is not working. This suggests nostalgia rather than the reality. The ALP can be influenced whether affiliated or not, witness those unions who are not affiliated.

I suggest that unions should not be affiliated to any political parties, not to weaken their influence but precisely to improve it, and to strengthen both the ALP and unions.

The current situation is untenable.

Union membership is barely 20 per cent of workers, and of that 20 per cent, unions actually affiliated to the ALP would represent less than half that, so they account for no more than 10 per cent of the workforce. Yet unions have 50 per cent of all seats at state and national conferences, hardly democratic. Unions rarely vote as a block anyway, as they are locked into their respective factions, which dilutes union influence.

Virtually all the white collar unions — both private and public sector — which now make up the majority of union members are not and are never likely to be affiliated to the ALP. It is something of a dog’s breakfast.

It is of increasing concern that some people seek employment in a union despite having never worked in the union’s particular trade or industry, with the sole purpose of using the affiliated union’s influence to achieve their main aim of a political career. This process is reinforced by the unions having so few ALP members in their ranks, making them easier to manipulate.

Some of these people have been effective, even outstanding politicians, and we want some union leaders to become parliamentarians. Nevertheless, this increasingly cynical use of the union is of concern — it limits other union members emerging who may have a long term commitment to union leadership. The obsession with preselections and factional power distracts unions from pursuing more enlightened, modern policies and strategies.

There have been occasions when arguments between powerful ALP factional forces have led to serious internal union disruption. In some cases unions or factions have interfered in leadership ballots of other unions, not to improve that union’s leadership or in the interest of the members, but to change that union’s factional alliance.

There are not many members of the ALP within the ranks of the affiliated unions. On some occasions unions battle to find enough members in their ranks to fill their delegation to conferences.

Another problem is that unlike the days when the unions founded the ALP, a significant number of members — some put it as high as 40 per cent —  vote conservative, so their views are ignored altogether. This must be urgently considered given that Tony Abbott is pitching actions and policies at blue collar workers. The labour movement has to have a far broader appeal to this group than only industrial relations and workplace issues. Disaffiliation would be a small step in getting their support.

Recent history demonstrates that when unions have been most influential within the ALP, it has had nothing to do with being affiliated. The whole union movement, including those unions not affiliated to the ALP, negotiated the ALP/ACTU Accord in 1983 through the ACTU. Its regular re-negotiation, and relative success, was the result of the two parts of the labour movement working constructively together — affiliation was irrelevant.

The very effective Your Rights at Work campaign, leading up to the ’07 election, involved the whole union movement in partnership with the ALP and contributed to Labor’s victory. The new Fair Work Australia laws were bargained directly between the two parties — affiliation was again irrelevant.

These major issues demonstrate that unions may derive strength from being independent of a political party, and bargaining about important issues, meaning they are not taken for granted, which is sometimes the case.

If the Australian union movement decides to end ALP affiliation, it must at the same time embark on a big campaign to get their members to join the Labor party, and develop a genuine worker influence.

This provides a basis for union influence which no one can object to. For example, it gets rid of the constant media attacks that a handful of union bosses "stand over" the ALP to get what they want. And those union members who vote conservative should also have no complaint with such an arrangement — in fact they would probably be more supportive if the unions independently bargained with the ALP about particular issues, which usually concern them as well.

Disaffiliation in no way prevents unions from donating to, or working closely with the ALP or other political parties if they wish, in the same way that unaffiliated unions do now.

An alternative short of disaffiliation is what applies in Britain. When joining a union, and regularly thereafter, the members have to indicate whether they want to pay extra on top of their union dues to be affiliated to the British Labour Party. A significant percentage opt for this, which entitles them to attend local Labour party branches, to take part in policy debates, ballots for conference delegates, pre-selections, party leadership, and so on. It gives the union a more powerful and legitimate voice, and it has to mobilise their Labour Party members to achieve union outcomes. They did this successfully in the ’10 ballot for the new leader, which is far better than some behind closed doors, late night deal.

Something has to be done and soon, as the current arrangement mainly suits union factional leaders, and feeds the constant conservative media attacks.

We must have a far more transparent and democratic process than is currently in place — in the interests of both the union movement and a stronger ALP with enhanced worker influence.

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