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The ACTU is a key Labor supporter but how much power does it actually have?

It is rare for unions and the ACTU to completely get their own way in policy. ALan Porritt/AAP

The ACTU is a key Labor supporter but how much power does it actually have?

It is rare for unions and the ACTU to completely get their own way in policy. ALan Porritt/AAP

We see their spokespeople quoted in the papers and their ads on TV, but beyond that we know very little about how Australia’s lobby groups get what they want. This series shines a light on the strategies, political alignment and policy platforms of eight lobby groups that can influence this election.


The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) represents 46 affiliate unions, which have a combined membership of 1.8 million workers. It also uses social media to reach an average of 805,000 people by Facebook per week and has an email list of 173,000.

Union membership has declined from a 1950s peak of 60% to 15% of all Australian workers. But the ACTU is still Australia’s largest representative civic institution.

CC BY-SA

The ACTU is a key player in support of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in the 2016 federal election.

Some of the ACTU’s largest affiliates, such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), provide substantial funding for Labor’s electoral campaigns. But this is less important nowadays as a proportion of total ALP funding than it was previously.

The ACTU’s main election campaign focus is to target 28 marginal Coalition seats, including 11 in NSW and six in Queensland: the key battleground states. Led by campaign director Sally McManus, ACTU vice president, its TV ad urges voters to “put the Liberals last” and “fight for our living standards”.

The ACTU’s 2016 Build a Better Future ad.

How much power does it have?

Trade unions formed the Labor Party in the 1890s, and many (but not the ACTU) are affiliated with the party. These unions influence policy through representation in party structures. Former union officials account for about 45% of federal parliamentary caucus members.

ALP and union policies tend to converge on industrial relations and welfare issues, including health and education. Two of the largest unions – the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and the Australian Education Union – are based in these sectors.

Nevertheless, it is rare for unions and the ACTU to completely get their own way in policy, as political opponents often claim they do.

In the current election campaign, for example, the unions called for legislation to protect penalty rates. However, the ALP has more cautiously expressed its support and optimism for the Fair Work Commission’s decision in its review of modern awards, due after the election.

Another example is Labor leader Bill Shorten’s decision to drop the Maritime Union of Australia’s Chris Brown as a candidate for Fremantle after his failure to disclose an assault conviction years before.

Union power within the ALP is often exaggerated. In order to win the election, the ALP needs to appeal to a much broader electoral base than unions have ever been able to provide. With union membership decline, this has become more important.


Further reading: How the influence of trade unions on the Labor Party is overestimated


The ALP, therefore, balances a number of competing political and community interests, particularly when in government. This has been a source of frequent union complaint, notably at a state level in NSW and Queensland in recent years regarding privatisation of electricity generation assets. It is often noted that influence runs from party to the unions, rather than vice versa.

For these reasons, the ACTU and unions need to organise community and electoral support themselves to more directly influence the political agenda. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the 2005-07 ACTU-led Your Rights at Work campaign that was largely responsible for bringing the Rudd Labor government to power in 2007.

Anti-Work Choices campaign

The Your Rights at Work campaign attacked the Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation that privileged individual workplace contracts, reduced the role of the then Industrial Relations Commission (now Fair Work Commission), and undermined unions’ role in the workplace.

One of the ACTU’s anti-WorkChoices ads.

However, industrial relations was not a key electoral issue until the ACTU campaign had an impact. Only then did the Rudd Labor opposition commit to repealing the worst features of WorkChoices.

Once in government, the ALP never repealed the whole WorkChoices apparatus, although it did eventually improve the legislation from the union point of view with the Fair Work Act. Individual contracts were gradually phased out. Regulation of enterprise agreements was reinstated and awards retained an important role. And the most draconian elements of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) were phased out as it came under the Fair Work Building and Construction agency.

The 2007 campaign remains the gold standard for the unions. In 1929, the unions ran a very similar campaign to 2007 against a National government that sought radical industrial relations reform, and the outcomes were very similar to 2007.

Another ACTU anti-WorkChoices ad.

However, it was expensive to mount all components of the 2007 campaign. The ACTU has a political fund from a levy on affiliates for this purpose, and relies on extensive operational support from the state labour councils. The high cost has prompted ACTU emphasis on grassroots organisation and targeting of marginals since then.

2016 election strategy

The ACTU’s 2016 election campaign will be based on experience from the 2007 Your Rights at Work Campaign, which had three elements:

  • a substantial information and media campaign;

  • mobilising union members over a long period in local public rallies, at work sites, and by direct contact with union members through phone and house calls and online activism; and

  • targeting marginal constituencies and swinging voters.

The 2016 campaign is emphasising the second and third elements.

Unions are contacting and mobilising tens of thousands of union members, targeting the 28 marginal Coalition seats, and tailoring the issues it highlights according to what is critical for specific electorates.

The ACTU has identified that Medicare is important on the NSW central coast, for example, and job security for a number of others, so its campaign is targeted accordingly. It has identified penalty rates across most marginal constituencies.

Key competitors

The ACTU’s leadership is critical because it represents virtually all Australian unions, whereas only about half the unions are affiliated to the ALP itself.

However, in recent years the Greens have competed with the ALP for union allegiance. The Greens’ willingness to support legislative protection of penalty rates is an example of policy directly appealing to the unions.

It is unlikely that the ACTU will shift support to the Greens in the foreseeable future. But a handful of individual unions, such as the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) Victorian Branch, the CFMEU Construction and General Division, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) WA Branch, and the National Tertiary Education Union, have financially supported the Greens in the current and/or recent past elections. In the case of the ETU, CFMEU and MUA, other branches or divisions of the same union support the ALP.

The CFMEU has offered the Greens support in the past. Dave Hunt/AAP

A range of business organisations seek influence for major reform of industrial relations to move closer to the WorkChoices era.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) supports removal of all content from awards other than wage rates, exempting small businesses from unfair dismissal laws, restricting union entry, and greater recognition of the right to engage in contracting and labour hire arrangements.

The Restaurant and Catering Association has called for legislation to reduce Sunday penalty rates to the same level as Saturdays.

Business organisations may introduce TV ads into the election campaign, but they lack the ACTU’s grassroots reach through members. Such was the impact of the ACTU’s 2005-07 campaign that the government remains wary of campaigning on industrial relations reform, particularly a wholesesale return to WorkChoices.


Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Australian lobby groups series here.