Affiliated trade unions in the Australian Labor Party have a bad reputation. Union bosses, faceless men, factional deals are spoken about to delegitimise the roles of unions within the ALP. They are portrayed as both the enemy of rank-and-file democracy and ideological dinosaurs opposing “reformist zeal” of the Parliamentary Party.
What is constantly overlooked is that affiliated unions are the only institutional opposition to the Parliamentary Labor Party. Removing their power will only weaken any possibility of rank-and-file oppposition and strengthen the parliamentary wing.
Less Union Influence ≠ Rank-And-File Empowerment
The main barrier to rank-and-file empowerment is portrayed by many as the union bloc at Conference. It is naive to think a decrease in union influence automatically means the rank-and-file has more influence over political decisions. The rank-and-file may be allowed to have a say over elections for honorary positions or to consultative forums but it will be far harder to challenge the parliamentary wing over political decisions. As politics becomes more professionalised, resources to organise become more important. Parliamentarians (and their staffers) have the resources and time at their disposal that makes it easier for them to railroad the rank-and-file.
It is the affiliated unions and the support they provide on Conference floor that can oppose the parliamentary wing and the political decisions they make. Yes, sometimes unions vote against the interests of rank-and-file members but it is only when unions and rank-and-file work together that the parliamentary wing can be challenged by the rank-and-file. The solidarity of union blocs prevent them from being picked off one by one as individual delegates can be and provide a stable base for pushing political agendas within Labor. Labor for Refugees was able to pass motions at every single State Conference opposing the federal party and win concessions while federal Labor was in Opposition because of the support of affiliated unions. Similarly, the support of affiliated unions was instrumental in changing the platform on marriage equality at the most recent ALP National Conference. Electricity privatisation under a Labor Government would have been easily rammed through in 1999 if not for the unions.
50/50 is not the main issue
The main focus of opponents of union influence in the ALP is the 50/50 rule with many declaring union delegations should be reduced in size, for example, Rodney Cavalier recently argued that it should become 20/80. This focus on reducing union delegations is a distraction. Democratising the election of the leader and the party bureaucracy, i.e. direct election of Administrative Committee, President and Secretary, and ensuring rank-and-file preselections is far more important. In fact, 50/50 would not matter if this occurred. Direct election of positions combined with 50/50 provides a good balance as rank-and-file members get a say but unions have input into Labor’s political decisions. Unions can still play a role in this direct election process by actively supporting candidates as shown in the federal Labor leadership election.
The ACT provides a good example where 50/50 exists but all pre-selections are rank-and-file. Despite the occasional beat-up in the local media by disgruntled sub-factions, it is a democratic and relatively healthy branch that has competitive pre-selections. It also needs to be noted that the reason why the democratic reform happened in 1999 was because it was supported by the Transport Workers Union. Affiliated union support was vital and would not have occurred without their backing.
Modernising the union link
All of this is not to say that the union link should not be improved and modernised. Union leaders such as Tim Ayers have acknowledged the need to modernise the ALP-union relationship as has new Labor laeder Bill Shorten. There is still a need to get more union members to join the ALP. The Maritime Union of Australia in Western Australia has been able to get over 800 members to join the ALP and other unions should follow their lead.
The selection of union delegations can also be improved and there are practical measures that a number of affiliated unions have adopted. For example, the AMWU has introduced a Political Action Conference where 150 elected union members will determine what policies and candidates to support. This addresses some concerns about a lack of democratic process in determining delegates and ensures they represent the union and abide by the governing body’s decisions, something direct election will not do. Other unions such as the Community and Public Sector Union ensure their delegations are representative by ensuring certain proportions of all delegates are rank-and-file members and that all delegations are gender balanced.
Modernisation should also involve individual members of affiliated trade unions in a leadership election as Dave Noonan has suggested. It seems odd that at the same time that many in the party are promoting trialling community primaries, they have opposed involving union members in the direct election of leader. Involving individual union members, not union delegates to ALP Conference, would help make contests more outward focused but also involve people who share the party’s fundamental uniting belief that labour should not be treated like any other commodity.
There is room for discussions about modernising the union link but make no mistake, the calls to shrink union delegations at state ALP Conferences are more about strengthening the parliamentary wing rather than empowering the rank-and-file. Unions are the only institutions that can challenge the parliamentary party when it tries to implement an agenda that runs contrary to Labor values. To ensure a democratised Labor Party that is not dominated by the parliamentary party, affiliated unions and the rank-and-file must to work together by ensuring direct elections but also by defending 50/50 at Conference.