What happens when a labour party cuts union ties?

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.

We are all AUF and Norwegians

There are few words that describe how I feel reading about what happened in Norway at the Labour Youth (AUF) summer camp. Frightening, sickening and horrifying are words that come to mind but it cannot capture how I feel. I never imagined targeted political violence against young social democrats in a Western liberal democracy such as Norway.

It is a tragedy that is being felt beyond Norway. At the moment, I’m on my way to the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY) World Festival in Austria. It is a political summer camp, just like the one that the AUF held on Utoya. The AUF is an affiliate to IUSY and were going to have a delegation at the festival. The feeling of absolute shock and disbelief has been widespread amongst others traveling to the festival.

What makes the events in Utoya so upsetting is knowing you share a similar beliefs and values with activists in the AUF. Many of them would not be that different to me or many other young members of the ALP. It happened at an event that you would have been at if you were Norwegian. The terrorist attack on the AUF feels like orchestrated violence against all young social democrats and their values. The statement by by IUSY, captured this sentiment:

The attack on AUF is an attack on all of us, our values and principles.

There are still many questions left unanswered and answers may not be known for some time. One thing that we can do though is to give our solidarity and condolences to the AUF. The thoughts of the world are with AUF members and their families. For the moment at least, we are all AUF activists and Norwegians