Unions’ pro-Labor electoral strategy a failure
Unions’ pro-Labor electoral strategy a failure)

The outcome of the 2019 federal election is an indictment of the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign. 

For two years, the resources of Australian trade unions have been thrown into a campaign to turf the Coalition government out of office as the first step in a strategy to overhaul Australia’s iniquitous industrial relations laws.

Thousands of union staffers and volunteers have spent countless hours staffing polling booths, phone banking and doorknocking in marginal seats. Millions of dollars have been spent on TV and radio advertising. Hundreds of thousands of unionists have marched in rallies intended primarily to gee up enthusiasm and recruit volunteers for the election campaign.

The unions spent $12 million on the Change the Rules campaign in 2017-18, and the same again this year, bringing the total close to $25 million.

At the close of polls on Saturday, the ACTU secretary and architect of the campaign, Sally McManus, declared that Change the Rules had been “a magnificent campaign” which had “changed the national conversation”.

But the result was a disaster. Of the 14 seats targeted by the ACTU where the 2016 and 2019 results are comparable, Labor’s primary vote slipped by more than the national average (0.8%) in 10 of them. Even if we adjust the figures to take into account the different state outcomes, Labor fared worse in 9 of the 14 targeted seats. 

This is a failure, and an irresponsible waste of unionists’ time and hard-earned money. Just think what else the union movement could have done with $25 million. How many organisers could have been employed to get out and sign up new members and begin to build up union strength on the shop floor around the day to day issues faced by workers? How much money could be paid as relief funds to workers on strike, like those at Chemist Warehouse recently? 

The money thrown at this campaign is dollars taken from the pockets of low-paid cleaners, labourers, hospital orderlies, teaching assistants and garbos. It has been wasted on expensive advertising, overpaid consultants and research companies to run polls and focus groups to generate five-word sound bites.


The fact that Labor experienced a swing away from it and lost an election that should have been its for the taking makes the problem with Change the Rules particularly obvious. But even if the campaign had helped to boost Labor’s vote and propel it into office, the strategy would still have been mistaken.

The ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign against the Howard government’s WorkChoices industrial laws in 2005-07 is regarded by most union leaders as a triumph. Like today, millions of dollars were spent on media, mass neighbourhood campaigns to get the vote out for the ALP and big rallies to promote the campaign and motivate grassroots activists. 

In the 2007 federal election the outcome was a swing to the ALP and defeat for the Coalition.  But what came after that? The incoming Labor government passed the very Fair Work laws that the Change the Rules campaign exists today to abolish! 

Taken together, the trade unions have thrown $55 million into federal election campaigns via the Your Rights at Work campaign, the Building a Better Future campaign of 2015 to 2016 and the Change the Rules campaign of 2017 to 2019. But we’re virtually no better off than we were under Howard’s WorkChoices when it comes to critical things like the minimum wage, working hours, casualisation and insecure work and the right to strike, not to mention stagnant wages growth and the continued catastrophic decline in union membership. 

It’s not just that the union leadership has recklessly wasted the hard-earned money of rank and file members and frittered away their time on doorknocking for Labor. These campaigns have only made the unions dependent on the ALP. Instead of standing on our own two feet, our unions have now been bound to the fortunes of Labor. As the ALP fails, as it has so badly at this election, so too do our trade unions.

But rather than attack the Labor politicians for their inept campaign, the logic of Change the Rules is that our unions turn on voters for rejecting the ALP. As the electrical union in Queensland and the Northern Territory put it on election night: “Shit result, Australia, you have voted for more hate, more division, and an erosion of workers’ rights. Good luck”. This attitude only alienates workers from the union movement and demoralises supporters when we need to be preparing for a fight.  


ACTU President Michele O’Neil put on a brave face on the morning after the election, saying “To all our magnificent union activists who worked and campaigned like the mighty warriors you are, thank you. We stand up together and continue the fight”. Victorian Trades Hall secretary Luke Hilakari said that it was “a rough day for the working class” but that “the mighty union movement will be a shield”. But fighting is just what has been missing from the union movement for years.

In a twist of history, this election took place on the 50th anniversary of the general strike that got tramways union leader Clarrie O’Shea out of jail in Melbourne. O’Shea had been jailed for refusing to cooperate with the Industrial Court, which had levied stiff fines on his union.

Back then there were thousands of rank and file trade union militants champing at the bit for a fight against the right of the courts to levy fines on unions for taking industrial action. O’Shea’s jailing was the spark that lit the fire. 

Within days a million workers had stopped work in protest. Within a week O’Shea had been released from jail after an anonymous donor, most likely at the prompting of the Coalition government, paid the fine.

That’s the fighting spirit we need in the unions today. O’Shea knew that when the jail door slammed shut behind him, workers around the country would rally to get him out. How many workers could be so confident of that kind of solidarity today? Precious few. Our unions have over several decades allowed grassroots unionism to wither away. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. With 1.5 million members, trade unions are the biggest voluntary organisations in the country. And yet how many times are workers called upon to support each other in action? Much more likely that they’ll get called by a union call centre to volunteer to staff a Change the Rules stall at a shopping centre or to hand out how to vote cards on election day. 

It’s well past time we drew a line under the experience of campaigns like Change the Rules, designed primarily to assist the ALP into office. They have hitched the unions to the Labor Party’s wagon, dragging us down with every failure of theirs. They have wasted members’ funds. And they have done nothing to rebuild union power or to seriously wind back anti-union laws. 

We have to start rebuilding the kind of basic on the job confidence and organisation that mean workers can make gains regardless of anti-union laws. We need to fight to roll back years of employer attacks on our rights at work. This sort of work is necessary to get our unions back on their feet. 

And it doesn’t take tens of millions of dollars – in France, the Yellow Vests have done more in months of direct action and occupying the streets, equipped with no more than $10 fluoro vests and the odd megaphone, than years of ACTU election campaigning.

But it will take a change in political approach. An approach that relies on the industrial power of workers, rather than getting Labor into office, to turn the tide against the employers and their draconian rules. And one that mobilises the significant resources of the union movement behind such struggles, rather than frittering them away on electoral campaigns.

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