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.


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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5 Responses to Victoria Rollison. Couples counselling for Labor and Unions

  1. Avatar Stephen K says:

    Andrew, what do you mean by “better workers” when you say they avoid unions? Are you saying that the people who are union members are worse workers than those who are not? On what do you base this statement?

    If unions are increasingly marginalised in the employment market, as you say, well, that would appear to counter any accusation that their influence was too strong, would it not?

    On what do you base your statement that unions tend nowadays to take the most reactionary social positions? What are you calling “reactionary social positions”: the conservative social policy of union leaders of the SDAEA? How many union leaderships share their views? And are the views of the leaders necessarily the views of the members of the unions themselves?

    There is nothing romantic or nostalgic in recognising that membership of a union, all things being equal, offers more likelihood that your employment interests will be protected than non-membership. It’s not rocket-science: I think it is true as well as a truism that there is ‘safety in numbers’.

    You say ‘most in that force want nothing to do with the so-called protection’. There are certainly many factors in non-membership – decades of particular policy directions – demographic changes – changes to the way our cities structure and move people – computerisation – decades of structural changes – casualization – the silo-isation of small business and loss of large manufacturing environments – cultural habits and expectations – educational emphases – changes in the areas in which people collectivise or are willing to do so – agenda-ed media influence – economic desperation and isolation and the resultant anxiety – perceptions of loss of self-determination – and so on. It is facile and logical fallacy to conclude that because people don’t apparently want the unions’ protection , they don’t need or could not benefit from it.

    Your assertion that shabby treatment of unorganised labour is more an historical occurrence than a contemporary event is too close to home. I won’t regale you with the personal stories I directly know. Let me just say that if people, often in certain industries in particular – hospitality, just to name one – could read what you claim they would beg to disagree.

    It appears true to suggest, as you say, that with close to 85 per cent of the workforce now declining union membership, people seem increasingly skeptical of the benefits of organized labour, but not true to conclude that they prefer to operate in a relatively unregulated employment market. See my earlier comment above. I would disagree that this means that they would not be materially protected in an enforceable system of awards and agreements. Many small employers think that if they can get away with underpaying their employees they ought to – the Packer approach, I imagine, rather similar to an attitude that would approve the dumping of toxic waste in rivers, if the dumper thought he could get away with it.

    That ‘the rise of the so-called Information Age may be a contributing factor to this development’ seems true too but the trouble with your characterisation is that although “flexibility” has positive connotations, in economic and employment terms it often translates into “uncertainty” (e.g. of roster, hours etc) and unreasonable imposition, and it is hard to see how the mere fact of access to information necessarily translates into better bargaining power for an individual worker. It is easy enough, if you are a casual particularly, simply not to be given any more hours if you attempt to negotiate up or assert a legal entitlement with someone.
    It is also not a given that people have ‘options to switch to better employment if their current employer is obnoxious’: the job market is competitive and employment of any comparable kind is not easy – the days of walking out of one place and into another – no longer exists (if it ever did).

    I’d agree that the interests of union members are ‘best advanced by improving efficiency and productivity’ but there are limits to any given efficiency or productivity trajectory – it is not instant or infinite, witness the huge costs of research and development. In addition, efficiency on paper has often been achieved through the retrenchment of thousands and this in itself incurs huge economic and social costs. It is not baldly true that unions increasingly oppose reform – they increasingly oppose reform that is simply cost and labour-cutting in an increasingly de-regulated environment.

    Finally, I disagree that unions have not assisted economic growth. The Wages and Prices Accord was integral, for example, to the economic reforms and changes in the 1980s and early 1990s. The union movement, despite its declining membership, plays and has always played an important part in articulating and informing policy developments in industrial and economic affairs and you only have to look at the last 100 years to see that that is so. The opposition to privatisation in both particular cases and general principle are shared by people outside the union movement as well and are legitimate and valid positions.

    Thank you, Andrew, for taking the time to reply. There is certainly a fierce contest of wills in this policy area, as it always has been, but the question of the role and future of unions in this country is a complex one not resolved by a kind of Orwellian analysis to the effect that “non-unions good, unions bad”. The flaws within unions can be found in its opponents. As far as I’m concerned, unions are the finger in the dyke, and the vulnerable will be the loser if it’s removed.

    • Avatar Andrew Deakin says:

      Thanks, Stephen K, again, for taking the time to reply to my comment.

      Your points are interesting and I agree with most of them in general, in particular that the role of unions in today’s economy is not a simple good/bad dichotomy.

      I won’t extend this discussion in detail any longer by responding to each point made in your second comment, but for the record (for my benefit, if no one else’s), I note a couple of things that I take way from this brief interchange.

      First, unions are experiencing a substantial contraction of their base, which will probably continue to materially reduce their influence. A significant role in future for unions in coordinated action to influence the economy through agreements such as the Prices and Incomes Accord of the Hawke/Keating period of the 1980s-early 1990s seems unlikely. The current union base is too small. The Accord is now a period piece rather than a model for all time.

      Second, the ALP would get more traction with the broad base of voters by establishing some distance between itself and the unions, in the interests of developing public policy that is not hostage to relatively narrow interests.

      Unions have had a substantial and necessary role in improving conditions for the employed over the last 100 years. However, the decline in mass sectoral employment, the increased self-sufficiency of many in the employment market, and the modern trend towards regressive actions by some unions, suggest that the traditional model of mass union representation and organisation has passed its use-by date.

      Unions will continue to have a role where employees are information-poor and/or exploited, but the role will increasingly be boutique rather than mass.

      All of which suggests that the point made in the original post that triggered our interchange – that the ALP and unions would be better off not separating – may be a bit behind the times.

  2. Avatar Stephen K says:

    I don’t agree with Andrew’s sweeping aspersions against “most unions”, or his implication that to be “progressive” the ALP must reject the unions. It can’t sever its remaining links without, as John Warhurst suggests, nobbling itself to a significant degree, not just financially, but philosophically. The ALP began as the political arm of the classes that were at the mercy of big capital interests and the armed force of the State. It’s axiomatic and persists in being the empirical case that unorganised labour is destined to be treated unjustly and shabbily and has no bargaining leverage – even today, the only real weapon labour has in the negotiation stakes – the withdrawal of their labour – the strike – is heavily circumscribed where it is not illegal. The high casualization of labour, the constant and widespread economic instability and the huge numbers of workers who are not union members means that direct economic redress by unions or workers is severely handicapped where it is still possible. A political party alternative – and the ALP is as yet the only viable possibility – is imperative. For the ALP to jettison the unions would be to jettison unionism and no amount of “progressivism” would compensate because labour justice and viability is at the base of other social possibilities. There is a lot of focus at the moment on the corruption of some union figures; a Royal Commission into the affairs of business would no doubt reveal similar stories of proportions we can only speculate. Unions are as good as the people who participate in them – success in increasing union membership would increase the pool and deliver some gains in the socio-economic equalisation stakes. The sad paradox is that so many people who would benefit from organisation and union membership don’t see it, stay away through prejudice or complacency and are left to the wolves on their own devices, when they come, as they so easily can, and so invariably do, sooner or later.

    • Avatar Andrew Deakin says:

      Note to moderator: I am resubmitting my reply to Stephen K, in order to correct a couple of typos. Thanks. The corrected reply follows:

      Thanks, Stephen K, for taking the time to reply to my comments above about unions and the ALP.

      I found your comments useful in developing my thoughts on this matter further.

      In particular, it seems increasingly difficult to characterise unions as acting in the best interests of their members. Unions are avoided by the better workers in the employment market, are increasingly marginalised, and tend nowadays to take the most reactionary social positions. It is increasingly a romantic and nostalgic position to argue that contemporary unions are necessary to protect the workforce. Most in that force want nothing to do with the so-called protection.

      I agree that unorganized labour can be treated shabbily. But this seems more an historical occurrence than a contemporary event. With close to 85 per cent of the workforce now declining union membership, people seem increasingly skeptical of the benefits of organized labour, and prefer to operate in a relatively unregulated employment market.

      The rise of the so-called Information Age may be a contributing factor to this development. Increased information, the greater mobility and timeliness of information, and increased flexibility in employment markets, may be reducing traditional bargaining imbalances and information asymmetries between employer and employee. Other things being equal, people are more likely nowadays to have enough information and options to switch to better employment if their current employer is obnoxious.

      The interests of union members are best advanced by improving efficiency and productivity, growing the economy, and ensuring the benefits of growth are shared among all who have contributed. Yet unions increasingly oppose reform, their executives seem to have difficulty understanding the benefits of reform for their members, and increasingly, as capable people avoid leadership roles in unions in preference to better career options, the unions become susceptible to management capture that would exploit the members and their funds. The most vulnerable in the workforce find themselves being exploited more and more by their own representatives, with even traditional use of their collective bargaining power given rather short shrift.

      Unions do not have a good record when it comes to growing the economic cake. Quite the contrary. They represent narrow interests, and resist change. In Australia, during the relatively energetic economic transformation of the 80s and 90s, unions tended to block developments that would improve efficiency and productivity. They resisted manufacturing tariff reduction, they fought the moves to end the former Telecom monopoly, they opposed privatization, and in the energy sector, in NSW in particular, they were spectacularly successful in locking in cartel-like conditions for more than a decade that raised prices beyond their efficient level, and consequently imposed material costs on the economy, and regressively damaged the household budgets of the less well-off.

      In regards to the last point, one ALP official remarked, after the Baird government’s recent privatisation of the energy sector, “we should have done that.” Some tried, of course, but were out-maneuvered by rigorously rort-protective union executives, some of whom successfully moved into the political arena to entrench their power (and lost the confidence of a majority of the voting public). As former PM Keating remarked, association with these types was an embarrassment.

      While some idealise the ALP as the natural base for reform, new ideas, and progress generally, the ALP is increasingly hamstrung in this regard by ties to the narrow sectional interests of the unions.

      One minor example is telling. Prime Minister Gillard opposed moves for gay marriage, largely, it would seem, at the behest of socially conservative union leaders financially influential in the ALP. Gillard reversed her position when, as ex PM, she was no longer in thrall, thereby exposing the hypocrisy of her former argument that as a feminist she opposed marriage as an outdated, patriarchal relic, and it would be ludicrous to extend it to homosexual couples (an argument I quite liked).

      More egregiously, the influence of the CFMEU in Victoria seemingly led to major beneficial freeway constructions being rejected, at considerable cost, by the incoming state labor government, as a form of union payback to companies who were trying to reduce the regressive influence and clout of the construction unions.

      Separation of the ALP and unions would enable the political party to independently develop its policy agenda, and to advance the interests of unions where those interests are progressive, and to resist or trump them where they are reactionary. Continuing the ties will increasingly hogtie the ALP to an ever narrowing reactionary base, and increase the incentives for progressives to go elsewhere for political organisation and advancement.

  3. Avatar Andrew Deakin says:

    A few brief comments on the above suggesting a different point of view:

    The ALP, in so far it as it seeks to further the interests of the less well-off, promote aspiring practitioners of government blocked by self-protective conservative incumbents, and develop a generally progressive policy agenda, would be best to sever links with unions.

    Most unions today are unrepresentative and reactionary, with memberships less than a quarter of those working, and with agendas that harm the economic interests of the less well-off.

    The ETU is a good example of a conservative and economically illiterate union.

    In NSW, for example, in the 2000s, the ETU led the campaign to resist economic reform of the energy sector, and convinced its political representatives to artificially raise engineering standards for power networks to such an expensive level that electricity prices increased by almost 100 per cent.

    These increases were of course highly regressive, and very damaging for the less well off, as well as materially damaging by association the then ALP government’s carbon tax policy, which failed partly because people associated the ETU-induced electricity price rises with the tax.

    More generally, the ETU supports financially the regressive and ineffective policies of the Greens to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. These policies are similarly damaging for the less well-off, as well as having no material impact on the effects of GH gas emissions on long term global climate variations.

    Other unions have a long history of well documented corruption and exploitation of the financial contributions of their relatively poor members.

    If there is to be a progressive political party, and that party is to be the ALP, then the latter’s ties with economically reactionary, exploitative, closed-shop unions should be the first thing to go.

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