Unions and the ALP: Between dependence and independence

By Trevor Cook*

Julia Gillard and Dave Olivern
Julia Gillard and Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Dave Oliver at the 2012 Labor Party Conference
Structure is destiny. Organisational structure is often overlooked in discussions about the future of the ALP. Yet, structure heavily influences candidate selection and therefore parliamentary leadership. In an increasingly presidential style electoral system, how caucus is chosen, and its composition, could scarcely be more important. Further, structure shapes the relationship between the party and the broader community. The ALP's model of union affiliation, the defining characteristic of labour parties, made sense in a blue-collar past. Now it is a cause of a growing disconnect between the ALP and other sections of the Australian community.

This thesis presents a case study of the impact of union revitalisation on weakening links between unions and social democratic (including labour) parties. It covers the national relationship between unions and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) over the period from 1996 to 2010. This period includes two remarkable episodes: the Prices and Incomes Accord between the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the ALP, which was a feature of the Hawke and Keating Governments from 1983 to 1996; and, the Your Rights at Work (YR@W) campaign conducted by the ACTU, from 2005 to 2007, against the Howard Government's WorkChoices legislation.

I argue that the national unions-ALP relationship has undergone a partial transformation towards greater independence, but has not (yet) been able to find a sustainable balance between the dependence of the social democratic type of unions-party relationships and the independence of the pressure group type.

Affiliation is the major institutional feature of social democratic unions-party relationships that distinguishes them from the pressure group type. Affiliation strengthens the links between unions and political parties by facilitating union influence over party policy and public office candidate selection. Affiliation privileges unions over other social groupings seeking to influence political parties. In the pressure group type, the political exchange between unions and political parties is less certain. Union movements have generally achieved better policy outcomes through affiliation than without it; that is, other things being equal, internal lobbying is a superior political strategy for unions than external lobbying.

Union movements in Western countries are using pressure group tactics, often borrowed from unions in the United States of America (USA) and premised on political independence, to augment the declining political resources they traditionally derived from high union densities and close associations with political parties. The Australian union movement was an early adopter of this approach.

The desire to adopt a more independent stance also reflects changing union member and voter attitudes that now place little value in the traditional relationship between unions and the ALP. The modern ALP places little value on union contributions to policy development, usually ranking them alongside the contributions of other pressure groups.

Conversely, union members are increasingly suspicious about the value of the unions-ALP relationship and often prefer to see their organisations fighting outside the tent rather than playing the 'insider game'. Campaigning, the ACTU leadership also believes, based on US experience, is the way to recruit and retain members.

Two types of unions-party relationship co-exist at the national level in Australia. There is a receding social democratic type relationship characterised by the dependence of unions on the ALP; and, there is an emerging pressure group type relationship which is premised on the independence of the union movement and the capacity of both unions and the ALP to broaden their engagements with like-minded community organisations and, in the case of the ACTU, other political parties.

A politically important contradiction has resulted from this co-existence of two relationship types because the social democratic relationship is characterised by 'restraint and quiet influence' (i.e. the insider game of deals between leadership elites) and the pressure group type is characterised by the 'generally adversarial nature of membership activism' and high-profile public campaigns targeted at both ALP and conservative governments.

Unions and the ALP seek to manage this contradiction by maintaining a balance between dependence and independence. Many interviewees spoke of the need to 'get the balance right' and to be able to position the relationship as neither too close nor too distant. This balance is also identified by terms like 'maturity', and by claims that the national unions-ALP relationship has evolved in ways, and to an extent, not found elsewhere. The need for a balance between dependence and independence has fostered a cherry-picking approach premised on a belief that useable bits of the American pressure group type approach can be plugged into an existing social democratic relationship.

The contradiction between independence and dependence was not obvious during the YR@W campaign when the ALP was in opposition, but the ACTU has had considerable difficulty in maintaining the momentum for its union revitalisation campaigns; and, the perception prevalent among union members that the ACTU was running a pro-ALP campaign during the 2010 federal election contributed to the failure of the union movement to have a significant impact in the 2010 election campaign.

The ALP retains an affiliation model that privileges a small number of traditional unions at the expense of other unions and social groupings. The ALP's largest affiliated union, the SDA (retail), has just 230,000 members (less than the number of voters in two federal electorates) and 8 of its former officials sit in the 103 member federal caucus; twice as many as the ACTU contingent. The ANF (nursing) has more members than the SDA and none of its former officials are in the FPLP (caucus). Nearly half (49 of 103) of the federal caucus have full-time union official backgrounds, the number with full-time experience in the community organisations the ALP would like to engage with can be easily counted on the fingers of two hands.

Despite often stated ambitions to do so, there is little evidence that unions and the ALP have been able to broaden their links with community organisations beyond the narrowing base of blue collar unions. The full transition from dependence to independence has yet to be made.

* Trevor Cook is a tutor in Politics, at the University of Sydney and a strategic communications consultant who has recently completed a PhD on the theme 'Unions and the ALP: Between dependence and independence'.

Published 21 August 2012

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