Labor Should Give The Unions Some Space


When Kevin Rudd recently branded his plans to change the method of electing the ALP’s leader as “the most significant reform of the Australian Labor Party in recent history” he wasn’t deploying his usual characteristic hyperbole. Rudd’s proposal for the Labor leader to be jointly elected by rank-and-file and caucus members in the future does represent a significant reform, injecting some much-needed grassroots vitality into a party structure that has become ossified.

Commentators have correctly read this manoeuvre as diluting the power of union in the ALP because factional heavies, like Paul Howes of the AWU and Joe de Bruyn of the SDA, will no longer be able to wield the influence they once did.

Unsurprisingly, conservative organisations such as the HR Nicholls Society, have tried to capitalise on this anti-union sentiment to argue that unions have no role in the workplace. Although claims such as this from the HR Nicholls Society — an organisation dedicated to labour market deregulation since its formation in 1986 — are nothing new, community disenchantment with unions gives these arguments a troubling semblance of credibility.

It is worthwhile unpacking this a bit further because union influence in the ALP is qualitatively different from union power in the workplace. In fact, reducing union influence in the ALP may actually work to revitalise the labour movement as a more honest broker for the aspirations of working Australians.

The HR Nicholls Society’s recent report, “Desperate Unions Cling to Power”, makes the questionable claim that declining rates of unionisation in the private sector means that unions have no legitimate role to play in the workplace. The latest ABS figures reveal that union density currently stands at about 18 per cent of the workforce: 43 per cent in the public sector and 13 per cent in the private sector.

However, it would be highly simplistic to see the low rates of unionisation as only reflecting workers’ attitudes to unions. It is fairly clear that other factors, such as globalisation, outsourcing and offshoring, and the growth of non-standard and precarious employment, have played a more significant role in declining trade union density.

While there is no doubt deliberate political strategies to undermine the role of workers’ representative have reduced public support for unions, it seems that workers still desire a collective voice in their workplaces.

A strong collective voice for workers is essential for a number of reasons. The relatively weak position of an individual worker vis-à-vis their employer means that it is only by collectively banding together these workers are able to effectively represent their interests. While this might not hold true for highly-skilled workers who can exercise market power, this is not the reality for most employees.

Unions have also historically delivered big wins for workers, ranging from work health and safety laws, annual leave to equal pay for women. Much more remains to be done in terms of addressing issues like the alarming growth of insecure work. Since the award system was dismantled in the 1990s, unions have also played a vital role in negotiating agreements which have distributed the gains from production between businesses and their workers more equitably. Finally, the union movement — with some 1.8 million members — still represents the largest and most powerful voice for a progressive agenda in Australia today.

This is not to suggest that unions are entirely free of problems, especially when it comes to the thorny issue of internal democracy and transparency. Some union leaders have treated their unions like their personal fiefdoms, wielding public influence and power by virtue of being able to speak on behalf of thousands of workers.

For example, the SDA has for years backed moral positions in line with boss Joe de Bruyn's Catholic morality, opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and in vitro fertilisation. It is doubtful whether any of these positions enjoy widespread support among the SDA's membership but all attempts to challenge de Bruyn’s authority have been ruthlessly suppressed. The recent HSU scandal should also serve as a lesson that increased accountability remains an urgent and pressing concern.

The close links between the union movement and the ALP benefit neither. The disproportionate influence held by union leaders in the ALP has been a contributing factor to the current malaise. Affiliated trade unions make up 50 per cent of the federal party’s votes and contribute the vast bulk of its income (unions pay affiliation fees based on the size of their memberships). Union leaders, who control large blocs of union votes within the ALP, wield significant power.

On the other side, the need to engage in the argy-bargy of parliamentary politics has in practice attenuated the labour movement’s clout; the best interests of the party taking precedence over members’ needs. It’s time that union leaders established a critical engagement with the ALP and clearest way to do this is to impose a measure of distance.

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