Earlier today, the Fairfax press revealed that Paul Howes, the outgoing Australian Workers Union National Secretary, has come to the view that Labor and the unions should sever their links. While the idea of ending the link is often floated, real world examples of parties ending their union link have rarely been examined by political commentators in Australia.
It is worth remembering that all labour parties in the major English-speaking Westminster democracies continue to have a formal union link. How the link operates varies from country to country but in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland, unions remain affiliated to their labour party. The Nordic social democratic parties (Sweden, Norway, Denmark), however, provide examples of what may happen if a labour party ends its union link. Each party had formal links to their LO (blue-collar trade union federation) until recently but their current relationship differs significantly from country to country.
Of all the Nordic parties, the Swedish Social Democrats have the strongest continuing ties. While they ended their formal link with the LO in 1991, ties between the party and the unions remain quite strong, as shown by the election of a former trade union leader, Stefan Lofven, as party leader. Unions are heavily involved in election campaigning for the Social Democrats and they co-ordinate election efforts. Unions are still represented at the local level, the head of the LO is elected to the party Executive and unions provide party funding.
The Norwegian Labour Party formally ended affiliation by the LO in 1997 but continues to have ties, albeit weaker than their Swedish counterparts. While they are completely separate, cooperation between the two is formally organised through a joint committee made up by the leadership of the party and LO, which meets on a weekly basis. Like in Sweden, the head of the LO is elected to the party Executive and unions still donate to the party. While there is no local representation, there has been the encouragement of joint committees between party branches and local unions.
The relationship between unions and the Danish Social Democrats is the weakest with ties being completely broken in 2002. Unlike Sweden and Norway, ties between the party and the unions are almost non-existent, the head of their LO is not represented on the party Executive and there is no financial support from unions to the Social Democrats.
A good comparative paper from 2010 on the relationship between these Nordic social democratic parties and the trade union movement is available here.
While it is hard to predict exactly what would occur if formal links were ever cut in Australia, it is worth examining what has happened in the Nordic countries and what has shaped the current relationship between their social democratic parties and unions.