Is opt-in union affiliation the future for the ALP?

In an address to the Light on the Hill Society yesterday, Senator John Faulkner called for a range of ALP reforms to be adopted. Along with Conferences being composed of 60% rank-and-file, 20% union and 20% Electorate Council delegates and the banning of binding, he called for affiliation to be an opt-in process by union members with all delegates to Conferences directly elected through proportional representation.

The idea of opt-in affiliation has been gaining traction recently. Greg Combet and Julia Gillard have both proposed opt-in affiliation in their recent books while Shadow Assistant Health Minister Stephen Jones MP previously wrote a piece for the Southern Highlands Branch newsletter advocating it and suggested it is inevitable.

Overseas, the British Labour Party agreed to move to an opt-in model in March with a transition period of five years. Irish Labour and the Canadian New Democratic Party also utilise an opt-in model. In the case of both those parties, the union member must also be a party member.

How does it work elsewhere?

Currently there are no unions that use an opt-in affiliation model in Australia. Some unions do not affiliate for their full numbers and at least one affiliated union has opt-out provisions. The main overseas examples of opt-in in Britain and Canada only provide some guidance for Australia as existing structures have been the product of particular historical circumstances.

British trade unions have separate funds for political activity (campaigning as well as affiliation). The existence of these separate funds are a legacy of Thatcher’s anti-union laws where unions are forced to ballot members every decade to continue funds for spending on political activities whether party political or not.

An example cited by British Labour leader Ed Miliband when he was making his case for opt-in affiliation was Unison’s opt-in affiliation model. It was created as opt-in because of the legacy of union amalgamations between affiliated and non-affiliated unions. Members tick upon joining whether they want to contribute to the affiliation fund, however, it is not always that simple in practice. Turnout in Unite’s recent ballot on its political fund was 18.6% which suggests the rate of opt-in affiliation might be around 15%.

In Canada, union affiliation occurred at a local level and unions never had the same role in the NDP as they did in the British Labour Party or Australian Labor Party. Founded in 1961 as a merger between unions and a social democratic party, the NDP gave the unions no block voting rights at party conventions or on the party executive and unions usually compromised 15-25% of Conference delegates. They are well-organised but very much a minority voice unlike British or Australian Labo(u)r.

Key issues

From a practical perspective, opt-in is doable but there a range of questions that will need be answered, most importantly, what are the rights of affiliated members? How will it be different to being a general party member? Should they get a say in who the leader or in preselections or officebearers? In Britain, affiliated members will get a say in the leadership ballot but not in preselections.

There would also be questions about directly electing union delegates under an opt-in model. For example, who will administer the elections, the electoral roll and what the rules will be around these elections. My guess is that it’s likely that delegates would be elected for multiple years and the elections would coincide with union election. The big question remains to who these delegates are ultimately accountable to. Are these delegates organisational representatives and should therefore be bound to decisions made at the union’s supreme governing body or are they elected as individuals? It is a broader question that will need to discussed.

Politically, a move to opt-in will be hard. Many unions feel that Labor only treats them as a cashcow and that this is primarily a attempt to weaken their influence. The move to opt-in in British Labour was agreed to on the provision that it would not reduce the overall union section of Conference. It suggests that any move to opt-in affiliation might only be possible if 50/50 was maintained.

Would maintaining 50/50 if opt-in affiliation is adopted be a bad thing? Not necessarily. It would rewards unions that put effort into organising their members. The fact that it is being phased in over five years does emphasise that any change will have to be gradual and there still are many issues to work through.

From the growing number advocates, it is clear that opt-in affiliation is a debate that will not be going away anytime soon and the ALP and unions will need to come to grips with it.

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