How the influence of trade unions on the Labor Party is overestimated

The Transport Workers’ Union is one of the three most influential unions within the ALP. AAP/Josephine Lim

The Australian Labor Party was formed by trade unions in the 1890s. It is one of a small number in the world where unions affiliate directly with the party. This gives the unions significant representation in the party’s internal structures and forums, and influence in choice of parliamentary candidates.

Organisational integration facilitates the convergence of ideology and personnel. The relationship provides mutual benefits through influence on party policy for the unions, and financial and personnel resources for electoral campaigns.

How has the relationship changed over time?

In the early 1900s, most unions were affiliated with the ALP. These were predominantly blue-collar unions, but with the decline in manufacturing their significance has shrunk.

From the 1960s, unionisation of white-collar and professional workers grew rapidly. The nurses’ union is now the largest in Australia, and the public sector is the main base of union membership.

However, many white-collar, professional and public sector unions – the nurses’, teachers’, academics’ and state public service unions – have not affiliated to the ALP. The “typical” union member is now a white-collar professional and likely to be a member of an unaffiliated union.

Union membership has fallen from a peak of about 60% of the workforce in 1954 to 15% today. This international phenomenon has motivated some weakening of the connection between labour or social democratic parties and unions everywhere.

Unions’ political capital has therefore declined, as they are more easily cast as one interest group among many. So, reforming the unions-party relationship has been an issue in ALP forums since 1979, most recently under Bill Shorten’s leadership. However, change has been limited.

The proportion of former union officials who are ALP members of parliament has also declined. In 1901 former union officials accounted for 79% of federal parliamentary party members. This has declined to 45%.

This is still a high proportion given the level of union membership in the community, but figures are deceptive. Unlike in 1901, most former union officials in the parliamentary party have limited experience as workers in the industry their union covers. More commonly, they have been appointed as professional union or political operatives after university.

Do different unions deal with the party differently?

Unaffiliated unions, representing perhaps a majority now, do not have direct input into the ALP’s forums and processes. Few Labor MPs are former union officials from these unions.

However, even among affiliated unions, there is a small number that wield the greatest clout within the party.

Almost half of the former union members who are federal parliamentary party members come from just three unions: the Shop Distributive and Allied Industries Union (seven), Transport Workers’ Union (five) and the Australian Services Union (five).

How much power do they have in the party?

Affiliated unions have substantial influence in the ALP. They influence party policy and its implementation by “quiet” internal lobbying through party structures, and close association and convergence of union and party elites. Clearly, unions with blocs of parliamentary members have an advantage in this regard.

Affiliated unions also account for 50% of delegates at federal and state party conferences that determine policy. This was reduced from 60% in 2003, but it remains a focal point for those wishing to reduce union influence in the party.

However, union power within the ALP is often exaggerated. Unions never vote as a single bloc at conferences. Decision-making in the party is dominated by formalised factions – mainly the “Socialist Left” and “Centre Unity” – which spawn numerous sub-factions.

The factions are unified less by ideology nowadays, but have been characterised as clans that distribute influence and rewards. This has contributed to a centralisation of power within a professional political elite and a reduction in the role of rank-and-file party members, from both branches and unions.

Unions have perennially complained that, once in parliament, former officials develop different or broader perspectives, because of the need to balance competing political and community interests, especially when the ALP forms government. It has often been claimed that the influence runs from the party to the unions, rather than vice versa.

This tendency is exacerbated by parliamentary members rarely coming through the ranks of unions now, even if they have worked with them for a period.

Insofar as there is a problem with union power within the ALP, it derives from influential unions not being representative of unions as a whole.

Shorten and the unions

Unions remain Australia’s largest representative civic institutions. Their membership far exceeds those who regularly attend religious services of any denomination.

About 20% of non-union members report that they would join unions if they had the opportunity. Surveys show that more than 60% of the population believe unions are important for working people, with almost half believing workers would be better off if unions were stronger. Unions also collectively represent 60% of the workforce in bargaining for conditions through enterprise agreements and/or awards.

Union membership was similar to now when the ALP was formed, but this did not prevent it from developing a major electoral base. The ability of all unions, including the unaffiliated, to organise effective grassroots campaigns in the electorates under ACTU leadership was clearly demonstrated by the Your Rights at Work Campaign that brought the ALP to power in 2007.

The Coalition attempts to depict union association as a negative after the trade union royal commission, but Shorten does not appear to have lost credibility after his appearance before the commission. The commission’s findings regarding corruption were slight, relating mainly to one union. The final report’s assertion that it had uncovered the “tip of an iceberg” of widespread corruption was not based on evidence.


You can read other pieces in the series here.