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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 12

Labor, the Greens and the Union Movement

Shaun Wilson

The union movement may have a decisive impact on the battle for the progressive vote in Australian politics. That battle is between the Australian Labor Party (ALP) which, like all mainstream social-democratic parties, faces electoral decline, and the Australian Greens who are likely to make further parliamentary breakthroughs in coming years as well as broadening their appeal. I argue that the union movement is central to the reshaping of the progressive political landscape, and that it is a mistake to see declining union membership, industrial weakness, and troubles over corruption as signs that unions are irrelevant to national politics. Forces inside and outside Labor will continue to identify the vulnerabilities of the union movement as reasons to reduce union influence on Labor. This strategy, however, is now complicated by the strength of the Greens and the potential for alliances between the union movement and this third political force.

I begin by considering the political-economic and sociological conditions that have given rise to a weakened union movement, a declining ALP, and an emergent Greens. Three scenarios identify the stakes involved in the shifting relationships between these three forces. The first involves Labor severing union links in search of a new centre-left identity and electorate. The second considers the possibilities and pitfalls of a deepening alliance between unions and the Greens, effectively transforming the latter into Australia’s equivalent of Canada’s New Democratic Party. The third considers a reconstructed relationship between the independent union movement and a Labor Party committed to ensuring an ongoing but perhaps different place for unions in the ALP and to policies that make it easier for unions to organise workers and bargain collectively. These scenarios are merely intended as heuristic – as guides to the forces at play and to the limits of reform strategies that at face value seem obvious and sensible. The overarching framework of the chapter implies a competitive relationship between the two political parties that is, given the way electoral opportunities emerge and political bargains are struck in Australian politics, a reasonable starting point. Such a framework commits us to one way of seeing the relationship between the Labor Party and the Greens that should not ignore the opportunities for political cooperation in forming governments and defeating extreme Coalition policies.

Labor and the Greens: The Current Situation

Australia’s political system is reaching a turning point where there are two viable political forces on the centre-left of politics, and a large and united liberal-conservative Coalition. Although Malcolm Turnbull’s ascendancy to the leadership of the Coalition may trigger divisions between liberals and conservatives on the political right, this possibility should not distract from the fact that the Coalition is a large and united electoral force polling around 45 per cent of the national vote, while Labor is polling 30–35 per cent and the Greens 10–15 per cent. A generation ago, Labor’s vote rarely fell much below 40 per cent, even in a heavy election defeat, and the only challenger on the centre-left was the Australian Democrats that had emerged out of severe partisan divides following Whitlam’s sacking. Until recently, critics dismissed the Greens as likely to go the way of the Democrats – they would either remain small or offer a temporary ‘third choice’ in a system resistant to new entrants, at least in the House of Representatives. This thinking is now outdated. The Greens – a stable gathering of ex-Labor leftists, ex-Democrats, middle-class progressives, environmentalists, and members of the not-so-new social movements – has proved more electorally durable than the Democrats on any number of measures, the most important of these lower-house representation federally and in the state parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. Moreover, a sense of the stability of the Greens political presence is given by the rising numbers of voters who identify as Greens, an achievement that eluded the Democrats.

Two triggers made the Greens an electoral force: the inability of the Democrats to recover from infighting after supporting the GST in 1999, and successful Greens opposition to the Tampa politics of 2001, which the crafty wedge-politician, John Howard, used to produce a new majority in November that year. No doubt, a succession of capable leaders (most notably Bob Brown), internal stability, and the skilful use of organisational resources have supported this rise. Underneath, a slower-moving story helps explain their electoral durability. Australia now has a largely de-industrialised economy if the state of traditional manufacturing industries is a guide, which has in turn diminished the share of unionised workers in blue-collar jobs – Labor’s traditional base. The nation now has three vast and multicultural urban centres with post-industrial service economies in which education, skills and housing have become key commodities. These cities are socially diverse, loosely organised around an individualistic and consumption-driven culture, and are divided by economic inequalities in almost every respect. Such diverse, unequal and even fragmented urban realities have provided the backdrop for the Greens to expand on their electorate of committed environmentalists to include the cosmopolitan and socially-liberal voters of the inner cities who either work in government, in Australia’s patchwork and underfunded welfare state, or in the more liberal professional occupations.

The Greens electorate is a middle-class electorate of relative opportunity – and Greens are happy to tell pollsters this fact. In the Australian Election Study of 2013, 66 per cent of Greens voters identified as middle class, more than even the Liberals (57 per cent) and sharply more than Labor voters (45 per cent).1 Given ongoing shifts in urban geography, the inner-cities of Sydney and Melbourne are likely to become bastions of Green politics, with Labor’s decline in the inner-cities outpacing that experienced in the so-called aspirational outer-suburbs. It appears that the middle-class progressive voters of the ‘Whitlam coalition’ forged in the 1970s are the ones who have most deserted the ALP.

Where does this situation leave Labor? Criticising the ALP for its failings is a national pastime even though on a range of measures Labor remains one of the world’s most electorally successful social-democratic parties, and its efforts at defending a modified ‘wage-earners’ welfare state’ (Castles’s term) since the 1980s have left Australia as the most social-democratic of the Anglo-democracies. Similarly, Labor’s commitment to multiculturalism helped transform the nation’s cities, achieving a blend of diversity and social integration that other nations only aspire to. Moreover, the ALP remains the party of choice for wage-earners on low-to-middle incomes.2

Despite continuing support for Labor among these voters, the Party’s share of the national vote – down from 44 per cent in 1993 to 33 per cent in 2013 – has eroded steadily as socio-economic change has gathered pace. Not surprisingly, the declining share of unionised voters has been a significant factor in this decline.3 But, by the late 1990s, other forces would further drive apart the coalition of voters that produced the Whitlam and Hawke Governments. The wedge politics of the Howard years – focused on boat arrivals in Australia’s north – aimed at dividing up this Labor coalition forever. The ALP reached the limits of its liberal multiculturalism when it abandoned the rights of asylum seekers in a desperate attempt to hold onto older-Anglo and blue-collar voters threatened by the insecurities that an ‘open door’ asylum policy apparently represented. From then on, Labor appeared to its own progressive voters as lacking conviction, only capable of producing disappointing compromises that satisfied noone. At the same time, for an older and culturally-insecure population, the ALP no longer symbolised ‘old Labor’ that was ‘for the workers’ – it was, in the eyes of this electorate, a party committed to the multicultural reinvention of nation.

When Labor regained the political ascendancy, however briefly, it became the party of the increasingly ambitious reformer Kevin Rudd and the stoic and sensible feminist, Julia Gillard. Its agenda was still recognisably nation-building and social-democratic, less focused on market reforms than the Hawke-Keating governments, and more focused on improvements in Australia’s welfare state. The Fair Work Act, increases in superannuation and pensions, the Gonski reforms to school education, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and attempts at progressive taxation reforms all illustrate these ambitions. It was thus especially disappointing that the Government’s braver, more energetic reform efforts either stalled or became mired in controversy, failing to contribute to Labor’s credibility as the party capable of progressive reform.

Despite their successful campaigning in 2007, unions were much less important to day-to-day policymaking than during the Hawke–Keating years.4 This does not mean that voters were left unaware of the relationship between Labor and the unions, especially after Opposition leader Tony Abbott revived the ‘faceless men’ metaphor to condemn union influence on Labor’s decision to install Julia Gillard as Prime Minister in 2010. Indeed, the Coalition continues to campaign relentlessly over union influence on Labor. Political events have painfully reinforced this narrative, especially instances of corruption in NSW Labor politics and misdeeds highlighted by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

Not surprisingly, these crises have emboldened Labor Party reformers. Figures including Kevin Rudd, Carmen Lawrence, John Faulkner and (most ferociously) Rodney Cavalier have all pointed to the corrosive impact of factional overlaps between the ALP and unions on both the internal workings of the Party and its policies.5 Their common purpose is to turn Labor into a social-democratic party proper, or even a social-liberal party, but not to remain a labour party rooted in historical-institutional connections to the union movement. Such a reformed party would not necessarily follow the ‘New Labour’ formula of Tony Blair; it would emerge out of the sober recognition that the union movement can no longer produce the electoral base necessary for Labor to win government and a recognition that new mechanisms are vital to any ‘democratic opening’ that would broaden that base.

Some of these calls are based on bitter lessons from a life in politics, and others from a particular reading of the zeitgeist. Isolated to an Australian context, they search for uniquely Australian failures and look to Australian solutions. But similar dilemmas face all Anglo labour parties and, indeed, the established social-democratic parties of Europe, suggesting that the problems for the mainstream centre-left are greater than those generated by the party-union relationship in Australia. Indeed, some national union movements continue to maintain membership even where their political allies have lost voter support. In fact, no major social-democratic party in an advanced democracy has scored above 40 per cent of the vote in a national election since the Spanish Socialists under Zapatero in 2008 and Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party in 2007. Germany’s Social Democrats look incapable of expanding their support beyond 25 per cent and even the once-mighty Swedish Social Democrats now barely manage 30 per cent in elections.

The twin forces of social fragmentation and economic polarisation have driven the rapid transformation of politics in democracies, especially where access to political representation for parties of discontent is made easier by proportional voting. The shifting pattern of political representation looks similar across diverse contexts: increasing support for parties to the left of the mainstream social-democratic party, a loss of support for the established parties of the centre-left and rising support for populist right parties opposing immigration and hostile to the Islamic religion. However, single-member systems have also begun to represent these differences, albeit via different mechanisms: strong regional or local concentrations of support based on distinct social profiles. Canada’s New Democratic Party is important as a social-democratic, union-based party to the left of the Canadian Liberals, with strong regional representation. Scotland has left Labour for the Nationalists who now dominate Scottish politics as well as Scotland’s representation in Westminster. These broader trends suggest that prospects for the Greens will continue to rise, mostly at the expense of Labor’s parliamentary representation in the inner-metropolitan areas of Australia’s east-coast capitals.

Established two-party systems are destabilised by new entrants and the growing dependence of major parties on coalitions with minor parties. Rivalries are particularly apparent in majoritarian systems like Australia’s where parties compete over actual electorates instead of a share of the national vote. Such antagonisms are sharply in evidence in inner-Sydney and Melbourne between Labor and the Greens, but they are balanced by an awareness on both sides of the need for cooperation. Such cooperation has emerged across many rounds of preference negotiations for the House of Representatives and the Senate and in the States. The Greens have twice cooperated with Labor in government in Tasmania and, critically, in the minority ALP government of Julia Gillard between 2010 and 2013. Given that Labor’s best recent election performance in 2007 yielded just 83 seats out of 150 from a primary vote of 43 per cent that does not seem achievable in 2016, it seems sensible to anticipate future coalitions between Labor and the Greens to form government.

The State of the Union Movement and Why it Matters to Politics

Given their declining representation of workers, the spotlight on union governance and corruption, and calls for Labor to dissolve ties to their long-time allies, it seems a distraction to devote much attention to the role of unions in the future of Australian social democracy. Surely, the central role played by working-class actors capable of striking over wages and conditions and turning out en masse for Labor is being replaced by new and different forms of expression and contention – by diffuse, kaleidoscopic activism generated by social-media, by the interests and constituencies generated by an ageing population dependent on a larger welfare state, and by more voters having direct voice in candidate selection in Labor politics. So two questions must be asked: are there good reasons to believe that unions will continue to play a central role in these transitions?; and, will unions remain valuable allies in the political system? I argue that the answer to both questions is yes.

Union decline, it is argued, is an inexorable reality of individualised, affluent societies – wage-earners are sufficiently convinced of their own personal efficacy and confident in the prospect of their own economic mobility to see unions as redundant and membership pointless. However, the ‘individual’ decision to join a union is in fact conditioned by complex background institutional forces, particularly by favourable legal and bargaining frameworks and well-organised workplaces that structure these decisions.6 Australia’s staged deregulation and decentralisation of its labour market – a process that involved unions via the Accord at least in its initial phases – undermined traditional protections for union representation. Closed shop arrangements, for example, were eradicated by conservative state governments in the 1990s,7 and vast privatisations and outsourcing have reduced and transformed the role of the public sector. In response, unions invested heavily in organising to sustain networks of activists and members in workplaces across the country capable of recruiting and representing wage-earner interests in decentralised bargaining. Coupled with unfavourable shifts in the sectoral composition of work and the diffusion of aggressively managerial cultures throughout workplaces, organising initiatives by unions have faced a daunting task. Not surprisingly, membership has fallen to alarmingly low levels (just 15 per cent in 2015) and is now lower than all other Anglo-democracies except for the United States. OECD (2015a) statistics show that union decline has been faster in Australia than anywhere else outside Eastern Europe. This decline is a conundrum to which I return later on.

Declining union density, though an important and troubling trend, is not a complete indicator of union vitality and influence. For one, unions have successfully turned their attention in these troubled times to a form of ‘political organising’ vaguely reminiscent of the early period of the Federation that produced Australia’s wage-earners’ welfare state. Union strength in the workplace in the first decade of the twentieth century had been seriously weakened by the long recession of the 1890s, and union activists had turned to politics to make gains, recognising the power of law to shift the rules of the game.8

Much more recently, the Your Rights at Work campaign of 2007 emerged as genuine political activism that benefited and surprised both Labor’s leadership and reticent trade union leaders as it helped to sweep from office one of Australia’s most successful conservative governments. Analysis of the 2007 federal election results suggests that the seats targeted by unions swung significantly more to the ALP, with the campaign probably ‘making a difference’ in enough seats to help build Labor’s majority and to protect the ALP from defeat in 2010.9 There is little question that the success of Your Rights at Work improved the union movement’s ability to influence the shape of the Fair Work legislation that became the Labor Government’s corrective to the aggressively anti-labour WorkChoices legislation. The campaign has spurred learning across the movement; unions played important and probably electorally significant roles in Coalition defeats in the Victorian and Queensland elections held in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

ACTU President Ged Kearney also argues that union impact remains greater than the density crisis suggests. Writing in the Guardian newspaper in 2015, Kearney points to the continuing high rates of collective protection offered under the Australian system.10 Indeed, ILO reports suggest that Australia is one of a few countries to increase collective bargaining coverage against the trend towards deregulation, especially in crisis-wracked Europe.11 If one also considers that, after taxes, Australian workers earn among the world’s highest minimum wages, we get a picture of a wage-earners’ welfare state that has been maintained albeit in a ‘hollowed-out’ form after decades of market-driven reform.12 Unions can rightly claim to have defended workers’ wages at the bottom and to have used their influence to ensure that union-influenced bargaining still protects wages and conditions for many workers.

Union density and influence can be seriously undermined by the combination of employer and state aggression to organised labour. The leading example of such a destructive impact is the United States. Such hostilities also emerged in Australia, especially during the WorkChoices years of 2005–08. But, paradoxically, the success of unions in politically defending the pro-labour institutions may have factored in reduced ‘demand’ for membership among workers. The extent of local success in this respect is clearer when we compare minimum wages and collective bargaining coverage for the five English-speaking democracies (see Table 1). Australia has the highest post-tax minimum wage of the six liberal welfare states and maintains higher levels of collective bargaining by virtue of ongoing award institutions. If active union membership today is driven by worker demands for basic protections – decent wages and a voice in bargaining – then Australian industrial institutions have maintained these even as union membership and influence at work have declined. One might compare the situation to France, with its high minimum wages and strongly institutionalised worker voice via the Mitterrand-era lois Auroux; France has very low union density, with the state effectively replacing the need for membership.

Table 1: Australia compared: still a wage-earners’ welfare state

Sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6333.0 – Characteristics of Employment, Australia, August 2014, ,; OECD, ‘Minimum wages after the crisis: Making them pay’, OECD Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, May 2015,; OECD, OECD.Stat: Trade Union Density, accessed 21 December 2015,; Jelle Visser, Susan Hayter and Rosina Gammarano, ‘Trends in collective bargaining coverage: Stability, erosion or decline?’, Issue Brief no. 1 (Labour Relations and Collective Bargaining), International Labour Office, Geneve, 2015,

Evidence from the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) 2015 adds to understanding about how the public now understand the role of unions.13 Voters continue to believe that unions matter: 51 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘workers need strong trade unions to protect their interests’, with disagreement from only a quarter of respondents. At the same time, however, 39 per cent of respondents also believe that ‘individuals can represent their own interests without the help of unions’. Women are less individualistic in their attitudes with only 35 per cent agreeing with this statement compared with 44 per cent of men. When non-members were asked about whether they would benefit personally from joining, just 22 per cent agreed. This result suggests most of the workforce sees no personal benefit from membership. Unpacked, such a low number may be driven by ideological opposition to unions, the job situation, or resistance to paying membership fees. But some of the failure of respondents to see benefits from membership may derive from the success of unions in ensuring basic protections of wages and voice for many without membership.

Survey data offers insight into how voters see unions functioning as political actors. Questions probed the two competing public images of unions today: as successful political activists (for example, in opposing WorkChoices); and as a set of closed organisations that shield misconduct among officials. In 2015, 44 per cent of respondents agreed that union corruption is a ‘serious issue’ (dramatically higher among older respondents) and few people trust political campaigns by unions (just 20 per cent) – a somewhat inconsistent finding given the powerful impact of the anti-WorkChoices campaign. Of course, it is difficult to interpret these findings without further context.

Australian unions have achieved remarkable successes in protecting basic entitlements and in mobilising against Coalition governments. These successes, however, are offset by severe declines in membership that are destabilising the union movement’s ability to defend its influence in the Labor Party and its role in the workplace. In no trivial way, the reorganisation of centre-left politics depends on the effectiveness of their future response – a subject to which I now turn.

Unions, Labor and the Greens: Three Scenarios for the Future

The dominant theme of this book is the apparent choice facing voters between supporting Labor and turning to the Greens as the future force on the centre-left. The two parties are institutionally and politically different creatures but will continue to appeal to overlapping constituencies. Thus the most likely prospect is that these parties will remain in a state of ‘cooperative competition’ over voters and electorates, with the Greens eventually prevailing in the inner-city and Labor undertaking a painful search for new outer-suburban and regional electorates to replace these losses and to preserve the Party’s ability to win majorities.

What is the future role that the union movement might play in these realignments? Given that union politics, as well as Labor politics, is in a state of crisis and flux, it is reasonable to assume that the status quo will be revised. It is therefore useful to think through some scenarios that might shape the future contest – and potential for cooperation – and what role unions will play in all of this. These scenarios are not forecasts or predictions; they are intended heuristically – to make space to think over what political forces might be mobilised to determine patterns of possible future variation.

Labor Dissolves its Relationship with the Union Movement

Despite the problems that Australian unions confront, it is probably the case that antipathy towards unions from within Labor has peaked. ALP politicians are increasingly aware of the limits and pitfalls of the ‘New Labour’ model of Tony Blair as well as the long-term impact of policies that undermine the vitality of the union movement. Equally, there is growing respect within the Labor Party of the campaigning capacity of the union movement and its ability to make a difference at the ballot box. Moreover, few Labor politicians believe unions have too much industrial power even if their views about the political role of unions within the ALP are more divided.

Complicating these improvements, however, is the continuing and widespread perception that unions are inward-looking organisations dominated by backroom deals aimed at the protection of their industrial-political interests. Labor is thus damaged by association and – if the recent Royal Commission is any guide – calls inside and outside Labor for the Party to distance itself from the union movement will continue. The present relationship with unions, it would seem, is a major threat to renewing Labor’s appeal.

For Labor’s part, a divorce from the union movement would signal a final break from the social and industrial base that gave the Party life some 125 years ago. Central to such a divorce would be dramatic reductions in the formal role that allied unions play in the policy-making institutions of the Party, particularly the guaranteed 50 percent representation of delegates at Party conferences. Such reductions would also send a symbolic message to voters (and business) that Labor was not a ‘party of the unions’ (indeed, Party finances are not particularly dependent on unions14). A proposal by former Labor senator John Faulkner seeks to have union-appointed delegates reduced to 20 per cent of the total, with union members encouraged to join the ALP to have a say.15

Figures from the Party’s NSW right-wing faction, such as Chris Bowen, see such reforms as part of transforming Labor into a ‘social liberal’ party. Bowen’s description is useful because it rather uncritically embraces the ‘engineered’ individualism of the electorate and refashions Party institutions in that image.16 In policy terms, Labor would emerge from a liberal makeover looking more like the American Democrats: a party wedded to markets and moderate social reforms. Such a transformation would mean that any commitment to the remaining institutions of the wage-earners’ welfare state would be limited at best and the prospect of reducing inequality fairly bleak.

Critical to reform proposals is the need to develop a broader democratic base for the Labor Party and direct voter involvement in candidate and leader selection is one widely-discussed (and now partially implemented) mechanism for achieving this. The central merit of such reforms is the popular mobilisation of local communities – the choice of candidates with deeper roots and appeal to local ALP community members. Anthony Albanese’s narrow loss in the federal Labor leadership election of 2013 (he gained 48 per cent of the combined vote, but 60 per cent of the membership vote) will limit factional power over the leadership over time. But this may not produce the outcomes envisaged by reformers. Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the British Labour Party’s highly liberalised, membership-driven leadership election in 2015 suggests that open processes will not necessarily produce leaders consistent with a post-union transformation of labour politics.

On the union side of the relationship, a parallel dissatisfaction has long been evident. Many unionists, from ordinary organisers to reformist leaders at all levels, point to problems in the relationship between unions and Labor. They are critical of the role that union organisations are expected to play as stepping stones in the parliamentary careers of ALP politicians, even though this route to political life has produced some of Labor’s most revered leaders. Unions have also had to endure long periods where ALP policy damaged the interests of ordinary wage-earners, with excessive thrusts in the direction of competition policy and deregulation, and there is an abiding sense that union influence on Labor policy is in fact limited.17 A more independent union movement would have greater freedom to criticise organised politics and its constricted, uncreative policy parameters. In exercising such independence, unions could combat public misperceptions about the purpose and principles of unionism. Indeed, contrary to such perceptions, several major unions are not ALP-affiliated so any move to dramatically limit the role of unions in Labor would probably trigger more disaffiliations.

Such a ‘spirit of independence’ in the union movement might spur also new efforts to deal with the membership crisis, similar to the way that workplace organising was ambitiously prioritised by the ACTU under leaders Bill Kelty and Jennie George at the end of Labor’s long period in office in 1996. These efforts produced a new generation of capable union leaders. The focus would be to recruit and organise the 10 per cent of employees who are ‘unrepresented’, ie workers not presently in a union who would prefer to be. If such reformist energies coincided with new leaderships mainly drawn from committed activists from the shop floor, less concerned about future political careers, unions in new and critical areas of the workforce might undergo significant renewal. Still, such experimentation may have to combat an increasingly hostile organising environment, such as that evident in the United States, and involve completely new thinking.

The Potential for Union Alliances with the Greens

Weakening ties between unions and Labor carries risks for both. Unions deliver candidates, activists, and a still-substantial electoral base for the ALP – and unions have the capacity to campaign on new media platforms and in close elections with considerable effect. Unions also greatly benefit from party representation, overlapping personnel and networks, and formal consultation processes when Labor is in and out of government. Losing these kinds of influence would be a major threat to the ‘power resources’ of the union movement. A transformation of the relationship into one where the ALP treats unions as ‘just another interest group’ would thus symbolise the loss of the power of wage-earners to directly shape Australian politics.

The ongoing capacity of unions to mobilise resources for political allies creates the potential for new alliances. One obvious possibility for a deepening alliance is between unions and the Greens. The potential here becomes apparent if we follow a different reading of the zeitgeist – one that would have seemed unlikely a generation ago given the ideological conflicts between environmentalists and the industrial left. Unlike some other environmentalist parties, the Australian Greens are a distinctly left-of-centre force, not only on environmental and social issues but on policies for wage-earners, taxation and welfare. They are a product of, and an ongoing response to, a leftward drift in the political orientations of Australians under way for some time now.18 Moreover, as a party with a good deal of continuous parliamentary representation, it is harder and harder for conservatives (or Labor) to portray the Greens as irresponsible, hell-bent on imposing an ‘environmental dictatorship’ on the land of farms and mines.

An alliance between unions and the Greens makes even greater sense once consideration is given to where union density remains strong – in the public sector and in the welfare sector.19 School teachers, nurses, university lecturers and public servants have all become potential constituencies for the Greens given their commitments to the public sector, liberal multiculturalism and social justice. It is therefore not surprising one higher education union, the NTEU, supported the Greens financially in the 2013 federal election (donating $1 million). But union support for the Greens already acts as a way of strengthening union political voice as well as putting pressure on the ALP. Despite differences over energy policy (etc), the Greens have benefited from substantial donations from industrial unions including the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Electrical Trades Union.

The Greens have a consolidated voter base from which to build middle-sized political influence. Around eight per cent of electors say they are ‘closest’ to the Greens according to the AuSSA 2015 – an achievement that eluded the Australian Democrats. The Party has effective campaigning machinery and has quickly become part of the social tapestry of areas like Sydney’s Newtown and Melbourne’s Fitzroy which no longer identify as Labor. Since the socio-cultural changes that have accompanied the ascendancy of the Greens are unlikely to run out anytime soon, there remains tantalising questions about what moves the Greens make to develop further as a political force.

One vision for becoming a larger political force would be to model itself on Canada’s successful New Democratic Party (NDP). Despite its disappointing election showing in 2015, the NDP is a major presence in the House of Commons with strong regional support in Quebec and British Columbia. At first blush, these parties have very different histories. For one, the NDP is much older, and was effectively set up by unions. The Australian Greens do not allow any affiliations so unions cannot emerge as foundational to the organisation and policies of the Party in the same way. Another difference is that NDP rival – the Canadian Liberal Party – is a centrist, non-labour party that leaves more space to the political left in Canada that the NDP can dominate. Still, a stronger alliance with Australia’s left-wing unions would offer the Greens considerable resources in their quest for parliamentary influence. Such an opportunity might emerge if a future Labor leader, desperate for government, took the risky step of divorcing the ALP from the union movement altogether, and left open space for the Greens to occupy. In this context, it is not particularly surprising that the more left-leaning NSW Greens selected Jim Casey, union leader and firefighter, to contest the otherwise middle-class electorate of Grayndler centred on Newtown and Balmain. The point here is that any effort by Labor to further undermine its relationship with the union movement comes with risks. It would shift the political opportunity structure in favour of deepening alliances between unions and Greens, especially if the latter more vigorously pursued anti-austerity politics.

As well as policy differences between unions and Greens in a range of areas, there are structural factors that limit the deepening of such an alliance beyond one of mutual convenience. The moderating impact of greater parliamentary power and the tempting search by the Greens for more middle-class voters in the political centre is one such limit. As demographic changes under way in their own strongholds leave these electorates progressively more affluent, there is some prospect that Greens parliamentarians will shift their policy positions to represent these middle-class constituencies, and avoid the challenge of confronting structural inequalities in Australian society. Moreover, in a quest to break with ‘old politics’, the Greens may well follow their own path to social liberalism, extending the metaphor of a ‘clean environment’ to a ‘clean politics’ that disavows ‘vested interests’ of all kinds over political decision-making. Indeed, such a rationalistic approach – of considering all policies ‘on their merit’ – is the refrain of federal Greens leader, Richard di Natale. The construction of organised politics on these terms is relevant in explaining why the NSW Greens endorsed reforms to donation laws by the O’Farrell Coalition Government that halted union donations to political parties. (The laws were struck down by the High Court). This style of politics, it must be remembered, severely undermined the Australian Democrats because its representatives convinced themselves that the ‘reasonable’ and ‘deliberative’ role of softening unpopular Coalition reforms would be respected by its enigmatic but nonetheless left-drifting electorate. It was not. Consequently, there are good reasons to think the Greens would avoid a comprehensive move to the political centre accompanied by the political ‘rationalism’ of the sort described here.

A Reconstructed Relationship between Unions and Labor

As the previous section makes clear, a divorce between unions and Labor carries risks for both sides too frequently omitted in discussions of reform. A corrective reading of the situation recognises that the industrial and political arms of the labour movement are too intertwined to embark on far-reaching reforms in this direction. It would equally recognise that alliances between the Greens and unions are far from unrealistic and that a general call from unions to support the Greens would boost their parliamentary vote considerably. It would further recognise that voter polarisation over future austerity programs will continue to benefit parties that disrupt ‘normal politics’ from both the left and right. Given gloomy prospects for the revival of mainstream social-democratic and labour parties in their present form, it is more realistic for Labor to expect greater reliance on the Greens in their efforts to win government and to identify the losses (as well as imagined benefits) that likely come with greater distance from unions.

The same reading of the times recognises that inequalities will continue to animate the demands that workers make on elected officials and continue to stimulate the need for union representation. Labor’s wage-earner electorate will continue to seek protections at work – decent and real employment, opportunities for education and training, low-cost child care, and adequate pensions and superannuation. These are core commitments of a social-democratic program, to be struggled for alongside unions. The development of a more comprehensive program must travel beyond the technocratic design of policy ‘packages’, crafted by those far removed from constituencies who depend on social protection. It would necessarily involve ordinary ALP members, unions at all levels, and the community. The same program would also address increasing concentrations of severe disadvantage in Australia’s cities20 and in regional centres. Although dis-advantaged communities are often located in areas outside the traditional heartlands and institutions of Australian social democracy, they would benefit most from a massive investment in employment, services and infrastructure.

As a revitalised party for wage-earners, Labor would also recognise that industrial laws make it difficult for unions to organise workers, and that there are benefits for workers and the economy if industry-wide collective bargaining became central to industrial relations. Such reforms would assist in better regulating the more ‘disorganised’ and unequal sectors of Australia’s labour market. In shifting policies to make union membership easier, Labor would also recognise that membership is not only falling but also changing – members are more likely to work in professional employment and overall density is now higher among women.21 Women express more collectivist and pro-union attitudes and, as women become more important as workers, workplace leaders, and breadwinners, their needs also become more important to social-democratic politics (ie equal pay, childcare, parental leave, superannuation reform, etc).

How would an acknowledgement of these realities alter how we see the essential problems in the relationship between unions and Labor? Surely, a starting point is to transform the ‘union debate’ from a focus on ‘how much’ or ‘how little’ influence but what kind of influence and what kind of relationship. A revised relationship with Labor might involve unions following the path of the Norwegian union movement in making support for the Labour Party in that country more conditional on Labour-led governments finding robust alternatives to neoliberalism.22 And, if Australian Labor reform efforts seek to democratise the ALP in ways that end the current bloc-vote of unions at conferences,23 then the union movement must propose ways that promote the voting power of ordinary union members, especially in unions affiliated to the Labor Party (as happens with British Labour).

To conclude, whatever emerging configurations reshape the centre-left, these will be critically shaped by two factors relevant to the union movement. The first is the ability of the union movement to increase its membership and influence among workers and the second is the shifting opportunity structure that determines the relationship between unions, the Labor Party and the Greens. Progressive politics cannot sustain a political majority without keeping ordinary workers allied to its essential causes and in turn, progressive politics has diminished meaning when these interests are ignored. The most serious risk of such a narrowing of progressive politics is that ordinary workers, who do shift-work, look after the elderly, drive trucks, and serve people in supermarkets – in the ordinary jobs that keep the country going – lose the franchise in the workplace and politics that they need and deserve.


1    Clive Bean, Ian McAllister, Juliet Pietsch and Rachel Gibson, Australian Election Study, 2013, datafile, Australian Data Archive, 2014.

2    Shaun Ratcliff and Shaun Wilson, ‘Rural conservative, inner-city elites, and suburban aspirationals: Geographic variation in income voting in Australia,’ paper, Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Canberra, September 2015.

3    Andrew Leigh, ‘How do unionists vote? Estimating the causal impact of union membership on voting behaviour from 1966 to 2004,’ Australian Journal of Political Science 41(4) (2006): 537–552.

4    David Peetz, ‘Are Australian trade unions part of the solution, or part of the problem?,’ Australian Review of Public Affairs, February 2015,

5    Gabrielle Chan, ‘Labor elders back reforms aimed at diluting union and factional power,’ The Guardian, 22 July 2015,

6    Margaret Levi, ‘Organizing power: The prospects for an American labor movement,’ Perspectives on Politics 1(1) (2003): 45–68.

7    David Peetz, Unions in a Contrary World: The Future of the Australian Trade Union Movement, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1998.

8    Peter G. Macarthy, ‘Labor and the living wage 1890–1910,’ Australian Journal of Politics & History 13(1) (1967): 67–89.

9    Shaun Wilson and Benjamin Spies-Butcher, ‘When labour makes a difference: Union mobilization and the 2007 federal election in Australia,’ British Journal of Industrial Relations 49(s2) (2011): s306–s331

10  Ged Kearney, ‘Membership figures don’t tell the whole story about the union movement’s value,’ The Guardian, 7 November 2015,

11  Jelle Visser, Susan Hayter and Rosina Gammarano, ‘Trends in collective bargaining coverage: Stability, erosion or decline?’,’ Issue Brief 1 (Labour Relations and Collective Bargaining), International Labour Office, Geneve, 2015,

12  Shaun Wilson, Benjamin Spies-Butcher, Adam Stebbing, and Susan St John, ‘Wage-earners’ welfare after economic reform: Refurbishing, retrenching or hollowing out social protection in Australia and New Zealand?,’ Social Policy & Administration 47(6) (2013): 623–646.

13  Betsy Blunsdon, Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 2013, Australian Data Archive, Australian National University, 2015. Sample is n=556 from the first two waves of data collection. Data here is unweighted and the older respondents are overrepresented in the sample.

14  Joo-Cheong Tham, Money and Politics: The Democracy We Can’t Afford, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010.

15  Michelle Grattan, ‘Cut union representation in Labor conferences: Faulkner,’ The Conversation, 14 Oct 2014,

16  Chris Bowen, Hearts & Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, 2013.

17  Peetz, ‘Are Australian trade unions part of the solution.’

18  Shaun Wilson and Kerstin Hermes, ‘Political values and attitudes,’ in Contemporary Politics in Australia: Theories, Practices and Issues, ed. Rodney Smith, Ariadne Vromen and Ian Cook, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2012, 72.

19  Peetz op. cit., ‘Are Australian trade unions part of the solution.’

20  Hal Pawson and Shanaka Herath, ‘Dissecting and tracking socio-spatial disadvantage in urban Australia,’ Cities 44 (2015): 73–85.

21  Ibid.

22  Wolfgang Biermann and Kristine Kallset, ‘Everyone on board! The Nordic Model and the Red-Red-Green Coalition—A transferable model of success?,’ Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, 4 (2010): 167.

23  Chan, ‘Labor elders back reforms.’

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer