Victoria Rollison. Couples counselling for Labor and Unions

When I saw the news that the Electrical Trades Union invited the Greens’ Adam Bandt to address their National Officers conference, and didn’t invite a speaker from the Labor Party, the lyrics of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” came to mind: ‘I’m not that chained up little person still in love with you, and so you felt like dropping in and just expect me to be free, and now I’m saving all my loving for someone who’s loving me’. This is not a lovers’ spat. The ETU has felt unloved by the Labor Party for a long time. In 2010, the union’s members made their displeasure official through a public, conscious uncoupling. As explained on the ETU website ‘our-history’ page: ‘The mood of the ETU membership towards the Labor Party has changed. The members no longer have faith in the Labor Party to listen to and act in the best interests of workers. The argument put forward is that political parties only listen to swinging voters. To that end, in 2010 the ETU membership voted to step away from its affiliation with the ALP and support whichever voice in the Parliament speaks genuinely for the workers’.

Such a statement barely skims the surface of the complicated relationship between the Labor Party and the Australian trade union movement. Whereas some unions are un-affiliated, others are loved up and as cosy as ever, and continue to provide a well-trodden path into the federal Labor caucus. As pointed out by Professor Ray Markey: ‘Only 11 unions account for all federal Labor parliamentarians with union backgrounds, nine of which are affiliated to the party. Almost half of these 39 MPs come from three affiliates: the Shop Distributive and Allied Industries Union (eight), Transport Workers’ Union (five) and Australian Services Union (five)’. And of course, Labor leader Bill Shorten has a well-known union background in the Australian Workers Union.

The question for both Labor and Australian unions is, are they good for each other? Will their relationship continue to be mutually beneficial to both parties, or should they go their separate ways?

There is no simple answer to this question. In recent years, there have been triumphs for the relationship, and inevitable tensions. The triumphs include the union’s campaign against WorkChoices which contributed to Labor’s election win in Kevin-07. Union campaigns were also influential in the election of Queensland Premier, Labor’s Annastacia Palaszczuk. As explained in this interview with Peter Simpson, Queensland state secretary of the ETU union, the ETU, though not an affiliated union, mobilised a grassroots ‘Not 4 Sale’ campaign against public asset sales. Many other unions helped not just with campaign funds, but also with on-the-ground activities such as door knocking and phone calls. In her victory speech, Palaszczuk shared the love by saying: ‘Can I thank the union movement … Because it is the union movement that stands up each and every day and fights for better conditions for workers across this state.’

Still, whereas the good times are good, the bad times are terrible. In working towards Party reform, Labor has slowly been unpicking their strong – some consider stifling – union links. For instance, in an effort to increase the accessibility to the party and the diversity of Labor rank-and-file membership, it is no longer compulsory for applicants to be a member of a trade union. Senator John Faulkner campaigned to reduce union representation at state conferences from half to 20%. Labor’s National President and Shadow Climate Change Minister, Mark Butler, is also pushing to increase rank-and-file decision making and reduce unions’ disproportionate voting rights. Since 2010, Labor has implied they are happy to date other people by describing their relationship with unions as ‘links’ amongst ‘other community organisations’. This is a far more casual relationship than 2002 when Labor described their union relationship status as a ‘partnership’.

Any end to the relationship would be costly for Labor. John Warhurst says 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…’ But with this money comes an expectation of influence, an influence many non-union Labor rank and file members and supporters see as authoritarian, anti-democratic, sometimes corrupt and with power held by factions and “faceless men”’.

Policy disagreements are also an unavoidable source of tension between Labor and unions. A recent example is the disappointment felt by unions about Labor’s deal with Turnbull’s government accepting the China Free Trade Agreement, albeit with some amendments. ACTU President Ged Kearney was quoted as saying ‘companies would still be able to source workers from overseas without offering jobs to local citizens and residents’ and ‘While we appreciate the efforts of Penny Wong and Bill Shorten to fix a bad deal, the proposed changes simply do not go far enough’.

All of these complications inside Labor and unions’ relationship are amplified by the Liberal Party’s ideological war against unions, and by association, Labor. Speaking about his Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in Parliament on 8 September 2015, former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed the commission was set up ‘because it was absolutely necessary to get to the bottom of rorts, rackets and rip-offs, of corruption and of criminality inside the trade union movement’. This depiction of unions as corrupt and criminal is regularly repeated in news stories, particularly in right-wing partisan press, framing any Labor MP with links to unions as untrustworthy. Overcoming such attacks, and defending their public reputation, is a crucial activity Labor and unions must cooperate in.

If Labor and unions are to remain together, they need to be honest about how each has changed since they first met, and agree to compromise, as any couple who have a long history must do. Unions are operating in a vastly different economy and with a shifting and declining membership base, with ever-changing IR policy challenges to contend with. Labor is often stuck between a positive reform agenda rock and a populist electorally viable hard place, so won’t always be able to accommodate all unions all the time. Of course everyone must acknowledge that Labor can’t be progressively productive, and defend against the right’s attacks on IR policy, without winning elections.

There is so much good about the relationship, I’m sure it’s not something either want to destroy completely. And even if the unlikely decision is made for Labor and unions to cut ties and file for divorce, I would hope they can agree to be cordial for the benefit of the children; for the benefit of everyone who relies on unions and the Labor Party to defend the rights of workers, to deliver socially progressive policies and to maintain economically equitable and sustainable economic growth.

Victoria Rollison is a political blogger. She works in marketing and communications and is researching political narrative at the University of South Australia. She is a member of the ALP in Adelaide.

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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