Labor’s connection to trade unions—for better or worse?

11 July 2023
Priya De

The Labor Party is broadly perceived as the political representative of Australian workers. Yet, despite the party holding office federally and in every mainland state, workers face stagnating wages and a housing crisis. The wealthy, on the other hand, have received tax cuts and historic military spending.

Labor, rather than representing workers, is the party of Australia’s trade union officials. Unions are more than a lobby group imposing external influence upon the ALP. They are embedded in its internal operation at all levels of the party apparatus—from local branches to the highest parliamentary office—and impact its structure, financing, candidates, policies and campaigns.

The centrality of unions to the ALP has had contradictory effects over the years. Labor has been uniquely impacted by working-class politicisations due to these attitudes being refracted in the party through the union officials inhabiting it. But the party is firmly committed to holding power in the capitalist state and has at times been the preferred option for Australia’s bosses due to its ability to rein in industrial militancy.

Taken as a whole, Labor’s connection with the unions has been a backwards drag on the workers’ movement, the parliamentary party and trade union leadership having much to answer for in falling union membership and soaring inequality.

The basic structure of the ALP was laid during its foundation by trade union officials, first in various colonies in the 1890s, and then at a national level following federation in 1901. In New South Wales and Queensland, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) held commanding influence within the newly forming parties. D.J. Murphy, in The Labor Party and governments in Queensland, 1915-57, explains that seats were reserved for the AWU on party political executives, and every Labor parliamentarian was offered AWU membership. Unions provided the bulk of funding and campaigners during elections, with the AWU coordinating elections directly in rural areas of NSW and Qld where Labor received its strongest vote. Such was the connection between unions and the ALP that historian Ray Markey, in The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales, said that the AWU’s journal the Worker was considered “the parliamentary party’s Hansard”.

Today, unions retain structural power within the decision-making bodies of the party. Thirteen of twenty elected representatives on Labor’s 2023 national executive are currently serving union officials. Half of all delegates at Labor conferences are elected by trade unions.

Political factions play a crucial role inside the Labor Party, determining political perspectives and how votes will be exercised ahead of party conferences. Unions hold predominant positions within these factions—for example, the AWU remains decisive in the Right, and the United Workers Union in the Left.

Unions also provide considerable financial support to the ALP; the Grattan Institute calculated that, in the 2022 federal election, over half of declared donations to the ALP came from large unions.

Political candidates of the party regularly hail from trade union ranks. In 1974, Gough Whitlam was the first Labor prime minister not to come from a trade union background. Bob Hawke moved swiftly from president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions to Labor prime minister, with only a single intervening term in parliament from 1980 to 1983. Bill Shorten was an important factional leader of the AWU before rising to party leader in 2013.

Labor’s links to trade unions has historically made it the preferred electoral option for workers. However, the party is based, not on rank-and-file union members, but in the trade union bureaucracy. Officials employed by trade unions inhabit a unique and contradictory position within capitalism: tasked with organising workers but removed from the day-to-day realities of working life. Where once trade union officials would have worked in the industry they organise, today they increasingly hail from legal or political backgrounds and earn many times the average working-class salary. The trade union bureaucracy seeks to negotiate the conditions of exploitation; they may fight for workers’ rights, but without any intention of abolishing the capitalist system that underpins working-class oppression.

Politicians within the ALP are not solely accountable to unions. Patrick Durkin, in a June contribution to the Australian Financial Review, wrote that the “inner circle” of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews “includes trucking magnate Lindsay Fox and his son Andrew, former [Price Waterhouse Coopers] CEO and Carlton president Luke Sayers and Melbourne property rich lister Max Bec ... also ... a selection of union bosses including Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Luke Hilakari and Victorian head of, the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation Lisa Fitzpatrick”. Former Labor leader Bill Shorten was a powerful factional leader within the AWU, but in 2019 attended a $5000-per-head fundraiser hosted by Australia’s then-richest person, Anthony Pratt, at his Melbourne mansion.

These dual relationships within the ALP—connection to the union bureaucracy and integration with the elite—give it the character of a capitalist-workers party.

Through the union officialdom, Labor retains a mediated connection to the working class, and can be shaped by industrial and political developments among workers. As Ben Hillier described in a 2011 article for the Marxist Left Review: “All parties are subject to the general external pressures that the labour movement can muster ... But the ALP, unlike the Liberal Party, is subject to significant internal pressures and ruptures precisely because union officials inhabit the ranks of the party and have a significant vote via union affiliations”.

Union officials are subject to greater pressure from the demands of workers than parliamentarians. While politicians roll in circles entirely divorced from the workers who elected them—often on a heavily guarded hill in Canberra—union officials can be phoned up, emailed or forced to answer questions on site or at branch meetings. Working-class demands—including dissatisfaction with the actions of ALP parliamentarians—have caused upheavals within the party through the activity of union officials.

Rebellions by union leaders have repeatedly split the ALP and expelled party leaders. For instance, trade unions led a successful campaign in 1916 to vote No to a referendum on conscription, challenging Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Hughes and two state premiers were expelled from Labor in a climate of industrial and political ferment.

However, union officials have also prevented and crushed working-class struggle, as well as refused to fight or supported craven behaviour from Labor politicians.

In 1974, unions used their resources to derail the largest general strike in Australia’s history, in response to Governor-General John Kerr’s sacking of Gough Whitlam. Alongside Labor parliamentarians, union officials directed workers’ anger towards an upcoming election, rather than risk a deeper challenge to the status quo.

Where Thatcher’s government in Britain faced sustained strike action during the 1980s neoliberal turn, in Australia unions proudly helped implement regressive reforms through Hawke’s Prices and Incomes Accord. Trade unions offered the government a no-strike pledge, which was used to win favour from the ruling class as the government embarked on privatisation and wage restraint. The Australian Financial Review described unions as “an industrial police force” as they disciplined workers and the few unions unwilling to comply with the Accord.

Decades on from the Accord, union leaders in Australia have more experience in meetings with management than shopfloor organising, let alone taking industrial action. Union membership has fallen to the abysmal rate of 12.5 percent at the end of 2022, and the wage share of national income has similarly plummeted.

In 2004, then Prime Minister John Howard proposed an extraordinary attack on workers and unions with the WorkChoices industrial legislation. Strikes were made virtually illegal, the average number of disputes dropped by a third, and unions lost 216,000 members in the first two years of the legislation’s implementation. WorkChoices was broadly unpopular; however, the Australian Council of Trade Unions held little desire to respond with collective industrial action. A series of mass rallies under the banner “Your Rights at work: worth fighting for” drew hundreds of thousands of people—but these were not translated into consistent strike action or an uptick in workplace struggles. By 2006, the unions had changed the title of the campaign to “Your rights at work: worth voting for” and raised over $1 million to fund Labor leader Kevin Rudd’s election campaign.

Once elected, Rudd returned the favour by refusing to roll back the core Howard industrial and political policies, and expressly snubbed the unions to demonstrate an adherence to business stability.

Despite their industrial base shrinking, unions still exercise considerable muscle at Labor Party conferences.

In 2008, unions in NSW rebelled against a highly unpopular proposal by Labor Premier Morris Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa to privatise the electricity grid. After a series of strikes and demonstrations, a Labor Party conference voted 702-107 against the proposal, which led to the ousting of both premier and treasurer. In contrast, left-wing unions saved the unpopular Queensland Premier Anna Bligh at the 2010 state Labor conference by sabotaging a motion presented by the Electrical Trades Union to condemn electricity privatisation.

In 2023, internal tensions within the Labor Party around Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s commitment to the AUKUS military partnership have demonstrated the positive and negative aspects of union influence within the party. In Queensland, unions led by the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and ETU voted down a motion put by the AWU celebrating AUKUS, citing longstanding opposition to nuclear energy.

A threat by the Victorian branch of the AMWU to move a similar motion led to Albanese being forced to field questions about party unity in Canberra. But when push came to shove, the motion was deferred from being voted on at the state conference, as right- and left-wing unions blocked together to prevent it being discussed.

The relationship between the ALP and trade unions has complementary and antagonistic aspects. While it provides parliamentary leaders many benefits—such as money and connections to a voter base—it also limits the leaders’ freedom of manoeuvre.

Because unions are involved in the ALP, the bosses of Australian capitalism typically look upon the Liberal-National Coalition as their preferred party of government. But the bosses are also aware that Labor’s union connection can at times be advantageous for a government if it requires militant workers to be brought to heel.

Labor can never be trusted to fight for workers’ interests, as its history and current term in office display. As much as the ALP may get many workers’ votes, its real loyalty is to capitalism.

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