In a major speech on Tuesday, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten set out a plan for Labor reform, to increase member participation and reduce the influence of unions over the party. It comes on the heels of increasingly furious attacks on trade unions and disappointing results for the party in recent elections.
The long-running coverage of the Craig Thompson scandal and the decline in union membership numbers are held to be signs that the unions are corrupt and irrelevant. But these are not insurmountable problems for the trade union movement. Nor do they show that the relationship between the ALP and unions is over.
Democratised union structures, plus an expanding and active membership would be able to hold union leaders (corrupt and otherwise) to account. And while union numbers have declined from 43 per cent of men and 35 per cent of women in 1992 to 18 per cent for each in 1911, this figure has held steady for three years.
Many commentators regard the decline in union membership as evidence that the Grand Old Past in which unions were (apparently) a positive force is over. Unions are now getting their justified come-uppance, due to original sin, rusted-on corruption or channelling too many research officers into parliamentary or governmental positions.
But the decline has real causes as well. For example, during the Hawke-Keating governments, union demands (with the collusion of union leaderships) were successfully channelled into areas that fitted the government’s economic reform program, while workers were given carefully-chosen rewards. Unions forgot how to fight – and more importantly, how to organise to fight. Workers, seeing their conditions in some areas improve, and then improve further on the back of a rising economy, decided that unions weren’t worth the trouble.
Another reason for the decline was the anti-union laws then inflicted by the Howard government. As Geoffrey Beckman of the Evatt Foundation put it:
"It is self evident that trade union power and membership numbers are connected. The greater union power the more reason people have to belong to unions and the greater the union membership the greater is union power. Cause and effect become reinforcing. It is my contention that these anti-union laws are the primary cause of low trade union membership and that these laws must be abolished before this decline can be reversed."
A decline in numbers need not be permanent and does not mean irrelevance. There remain 1.8 million trade union members in Australia. This dwarfs the membership of any Australian political party. The Liberal party, for example, claims to have 40-50,000 members. However, due to the the link between affiliated unions and the Labor Party, a good proportion of these unionists are affiliated through their unions to the party of labour. This gives the ALP a far wider base amongst "working families" (to use a tired phrase) than any other political organisation. This should not be treated lightly by analysts and politicians – including Labor politicians.
But the decline in union membership is being used to argue that the influence of the unions on Labor should be reduced. The party should, so the argument goes, "reform" or "rationalise" – or cut – its ties with the trade union movement. This push, from inside and outside the party, is to some extent motivated by a desperate concern with cleaning up corruption or (more likely) an attempt to present a "nicer" image – untainted, say, by the complicated lives of actual "working families".
But scratch the surface of most of it and you will find a general attack on trade union power because it stands in the way of neoliberal reform. The unions need to be taken down a peg or two – and one way of doing that is to damage their links with the Labor Party. In that way, the unions would lose their political representation and Labor would lose its powerful social base.
Guy Rundle, in a column arguing that the unions should divorce the ALP, commented on the pressure for this from within Labor:
"The Labor – union separation push is coming from the party’s pro-market forces, who want to wind back such commitment as the Rudd-Gillard government had made, and present the party as little more than a steward of the markets, extending ‘opportunity’ through further neoliberalisation – and caring little, it would seem, about the greater entrenchment of every sort of inequality that such a process represents."
I would argue that, to resist this process, the link should remain. Indeed, in the interests of the party, the unions and the labour movement should be both strengthened and democratised. All unions should be encouraged to affiliate to the Labor party – and Labor party members in unions should be in the forefront of a campaign for this.
Union delegates to ALP conferences should be elected by ordinary union members, not appointed by national secretaries. Furthermore, the selection of parliamentary candidates should be in the hands of rank-and-file members of the party and the affiliated unions – not in the hands of union bureaucrats, or "factional" warlords (who mostly lead personality cliques rather than political factions) or the general public, as Shorten's proposals seem to promote.
The union link marks out the Labor party as different from other parties. Tony Sheldon, the Transport Workers Union national secretary and ALP vice-president, said in July last year:
"[I]f the party fails to reach out to union members, and if it ceases to be an authentic voice for working people, it will lose its core meaning and become nothing more than a pale imitation of the conservative parties. It would be a tragic loss for the country if the ALP was reduced to a rebadged version of the Australian Democrats."
The union link can be used to ensure that the Labor party stands for something distinctive. The most common complaint about political parties (and especially about Labor in recent years) has been that they don’t stand for anything except votes and seats. If the link is maintained, strengthened and campaigned for, that will change. And the perception of the party will change as well.
It is sometimes argued that Labor's union link makes the party too "narrow" – that the party should broaden its appeal by dropping it. But this rather misses the point of political parties. Parties are not designed to replicate society. They represent the interests of a section of society – in the case of the Labor party, the working population. That’s the biggest part of society and its most important part, but it is not all of society.
A political party that seeks to represent that section is not under an obligation to accept within its ranks those whose interests are against it. Kevin Harkins, secretary of Unions Tasmania, said on radio last week:
"It would mystify me why anyone that shares the Labor values, or the true Labor values, wouldn’t be a union member. I think the two are hand in glove. We need to remember that the Labor Party is the political wing of the union movement, so let’s [not]have any denial on that … it would be natural for any worker that wants to participate in the Labor Party to be a union member.:
Finally the link is symbiotic. Not in the sense of providing a seamless transition from university to union research officer to MP. That well-trodden path is overdue for elimination. It's symbiotic in the sense that the unions and the party need each other to defend and improve the lives of working people.
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