What are the arguments against trade union influence in Australian politics?
March 4, 2012 10:58 PM   Subscribe

Could someone please explain to me the arguments against and counter-arguments for the role of unions in the Australian Labor Party?

I've been taking in a lot of Australian politics lately, including news, opinion pieces, and (regrettably) online comments and message boards. One common argument against the ALP regards the influence of trade unions and "union power brokers". Unfortunately it's such an old argument that no one ever really bothers to explain why the unions are a bad thing. I suspect that in some cases the slur is a reflexive anti-ALP talking point with no specific meaning in the context of whatever is being debated, but there may be some valid points behind the sentiment and I'd like to understand what they are.
posted by teem to Law & Government (3 answers total)
Valid-ish cons re Unions in the Labor party:

1. They are not elected by the public but wield a lot of influence on policy and preselection in seats (e.g Paul Howes going on Lateline to announce Kevin Rudd's rolling).
2. Some of the most powerful unions have a long or potent history of corruption (eg Health Services Union atm, unfortunately)
3. Some of the most powerful unions are filled with the most antediluvian cavemen that make Tony Abbott look like Ghandi and wouldn't have a bar of Labor if not for the fact that they're unions (E.g Shoppies).
4. Some of the most powerful unions exist primarily as rent-seekers for their members' interests whether they coincide with the national interest or not (e.g CMFEU at times, most police unions in most states)

Semi-validish: 5. Some argue that as union membership plummets they are becoming increasingly unrepresentative of, opaque to, and irrelevant for more and more Australians; these people see their power in the Labor party and are turned off.

Invalid: 6. Unions booga-wooga! All corrupt, lazy, violent bastards feathering their own nests and controlling one of Australia's major political parties in a shadowy cabal, making Australia uncompetitive and losing our rightful place at the forefront of a race to the bottom that will propel us to splendour, enemies of flexibility and cheap groceries or something. Probably connected to the latest interest rate rise.

Really, in my opinion, the main problem is that the Labor party is as close to a union as the majority of Australians get these days, and vice versa. The public don't understand unions, are consistently fed capitalist talking points via a cowed and incompetent media about how threatening they are, only see them when they're on tv for jaw-dropping levels of malfeasance & corruption & threatening behaviour, and have little empathy for or knowledge of people in dangerous, low-paid, or exploitative jobs that benefit most from unions and instead see footage of strikes and wonder why they can't get a *whatever striking thing is that they want*, lazy bastards earn more than me why are they complaining etc etc. Pretty age-old complaints about unions really.

Imho, the QANTAS strikes were the best thing that's happened to unions in Australia for a long time. The public swung behind that one with an immediacy and strength that we haven't seen for ages - certainly not in the Patrick wharf dispute where the support could have changed history, or the many education or health strikes we've seen since that time.
posted by smoke at 11:28 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I could explain to you how the trade union influence colours the way I feel about the ALP - based purely on personal experiences - but I think Smoke has pretty much nailed it.

Can I just throw in a joke that my 10 year old told me today? "If you're so against being a capitalist, just write in lower case, dude." I laughed out loud.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 2:53 AM on March 5, 2012

The first chapter of Rodney Cavalier's recent book Power Crisis is a great introduction to the historical context (though it's primarily about NSW). He identifies 1916 as the critical year when the Industrial Groups crystallised, in the context of the First World War, to act as a steering body directly over the Party's parliamentary activity, establishing a pattern that has continued until the last decade, and is now breaking down. It's accessible and historically well-informed though it's worth remembering that Cavalier is a strong advocate against unions having any role at all the Party when you read it.

There are two other arguments regarding union affiliation I'd add to Smoke's:

7. Public sector unions representing workers in Government departments or State-owned corporations have a conflict of interest in affiliating, especially if the Labor Party is in Government. Are they part of the Government or not, and how do they represent their members' interests? The FBEU (firefighters) in NSW recently disaffiliated, and lots of others representing school teachers, nurses, and so on, do not affiliate. The PSA and CPSU representing State and Federal public servants respectively, however, does.
8. The political role of union secretaries and officials is compromised by their involvement in factional politics more so than ALP politics: an affiliated union is also generally either affiliated also to the Socialist Left (aka Left) or Centre Unity (aka Right) faction, or to various other factions existing in other States. So it's not that a union secretary's time is taken influencing broader policy, but that she or he so often winds up playing numbers games for preselections and appointments to upper houses.

Both of those arguments focus on the problems for unions affiliating to the Party more than on the problems for the Party or for the broader public interest, of course. And it's worth remembering that the majority of unions operating in Australia aren't affiliated to the Labor Party at all, and in some cases (thinking of the ETU in Victoria, but there are others) are quite hostile to it.

The best argument in favour of unions' affiliation to the ALP is simply that the unions, in a very real way, are the Labor Party. They established it in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they built it up into what it is, they support it when it's out of Government and in crisis. They provide it an intellectual and a social basis, and a history and a common mythology, and in a way other Social Democratic parties around the world don't have, they force the ALP to keep a strong interest in the arena of industrial politics.

Most tellingly of all, I think, the fact that there's such a concern about the internal workings of the ALP, and its representativeness or otherwise, is because it's expected to be the Party of ordinary working people. There's not the same standard applied to any of the other Parties operating: nobody really knows (or cares) about the factionalism in or the influences on the Coalition.

A disclaimer: I'm a member of the NSW ALP and, when I'm working, a union member.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:54 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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