Western Australian Unions rally in Perth in 2012.

Western Australian Unions rally in Perth in 2012.

Bill Shorten and other Labor leaders are reinforcing Tony Abbott's efforts to discredit unionism. As the government's royal commission into trade union governance and corruption opens, prominent figures in the ALP are working hard to distance the party from the union movement.

The Labor Party is in a hole. Its leaders are down the bottom, shovelling hard. They want to reduce workers’ influence on the ALP, particularly through their unions. In doing so, they are helping Tony Abbott in his attacks on the living standards of working people by identifying unions as a problem rather than a crucial element in resistance to the Business Council’s and Gina Rinehart’s agenda of redistribution from those below to the few on top of the heap.

For, being responsible politicians, they can’t conceive that the problem might have something to do with the market-oriented policies they have been pursuing and the increasingly trivial distinctions between Labor and Liberal approaches to economic matters.

Former Labor politicians, ably assisted by the Murdoch media that is hostile to the ALP but also small-l liberals sympathetic to the party, have been at the sharp end of this push. Among them are former federal leaders Bob Hawke, Simon Crean and Mark Latham as well as John Button and Rod Cavalier. Many had backgrounds as senior union officials.

They have rattled on about the declining rate of union membership in Australia. The overall figure is about 18 per cent, only 13 per cent in the private sector.

There is, of course, another way to deal with the political embarrassment that current and former Labor Party figures feel about the link with the unions.That would be to engage in serious efforts to rebuild the union movement that remains the best defence for the living standards and broader wellbeing of workers, who make up two-thirds of the labour force.

Kevin Rudd’s and Julia Gillard’s Fair Work Act made some concessions to unions but retained important anti-union provisions in the John Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation. Athough less draconian laws, even the situation before Howard would be an improvement, changes in the formal rules of industrial relations are not the key to a stronger union movement. Only the rebuilding of workers’ self-confidence and willingness to take on the boss can do that.

Strike levels in Australia, despite Liberal and employer moans about “lawlessness”, are at historically low levels. There are, however, glimmers of resistance against wage-cutting, increased workloads, reduced job security and the erosion of job safety and other conditions.

Supported by the National Union of Workers, employees of furniture retailer Super A-Mart are continuing to press their demands, including the first pay increase since 2010, even though they have been locked out for more than a month. Western Australia teachers held a strike on 1 April against the Liberal Barnett government’s education cuts. Public sector disability workers in NSW have imposed bans in the face of the O’Farrell government’s plans to undermine wages and conditions by outsourcing their work.

The path to union renewal lies through such struggles.

Other ingredients include more class rhetoric - so despised by former ACTU president, Labor minister and mining industry advocate Martin Ferguson - not less; recognition that in the course of Australian history most strikes have been illegal, rather than respect for partisan laws. Greater authority for rank-and-file unionists and robust workplace organisations of delegates and shop stewards, instead of the centralisation of power in the hands of a few national officials; and union officials who are mainly the product of experience as militant leaders on the job, in contrast to graduates of university courses in human resources management or young folk with ALP connections.

There are union officials, too, who have been obstacles to the renewal of the union movement. The likes of Joe de Bruyn have built their careers around the principle of close collaboration with big employers. The flip-side is his highly bureaucratic organisation and ruthless treatment of members of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association who want their union to be more militant or to abandon bigoted policies derived from official Catholic social doctrine on the rights of women, gays and lesbians.

“The ALP’s continued union ties make the party unrepresentative of the Australian electorate”, Labor’s “reformers” cry, “chop through or, at the very least, loosen the bond of union affiliation”. They look with envy to the United States. Unions provide substantial funds to the Democratic Party but have no formal role and very little clout within it.

The problem is that nowhere in the world has a social democratic party restored its former organisational strength or an extensive, dedicated electoral base by adopting this right-wing course. In Germany, the oldest social democratic party lost ground, to the Greens and die Linke (the Left), despite its neoliberal policies and disdain for its traditional supporters. In Greece, PASOK is a subordinate rump in a neoliberal coalition with conservatives.

In a prolonged period, the weight of unions and workers in the Labor Party has been watered down. The process began decades before 2003, when Simon Crean presided over a rule change that limited the proportion of delegates elected to state party conferences to half.

Kevin Rudd’s parting organisational gift was to increase the autonomy of the federal leader from the caucus and factions, through which unions exert some influence in the parliamentary party. Shorten was elected in a system that gave 50 per cent of the say to caucus and 50 per cent to members of local ALP branches.

Unions represent the interests of workers much more directly than local Labor Party branches, in which professional politicians, their families and hangers-on tend to play a dominant role. The NSW ALP is experimenting with primaries, modelled on US practice, of letting non-members vote in preselections for parliamentary candidates.

The deputy Labor leader, from the left of the ALP, Tanya Plibersek recently made a remarkable statement about the requirement of union membership. In a softening-up operation for Shorten, from the right, she said this was an obstacle to recruiting pensioners and the self-employed. But the rules of the NSW branch, her branch, like those of other branches make it clear that only those eligible to be members of a union have to be, before they can join the party.

Since the mid 1890s, Labor has been a capitalist workers' party, with a variety of ties to the working class. Members were overwhelmingly working class, as was its core electoral base. But, in practice, the ALP has been committed to maintaining production geared to making profits for a small and powerful elite, rather than to satisfying human needs. As those ties have frayed, it has become harder and harder to envisage the ALP reinforcing them, in terms of policy or organisation, as a path to rebuilding its electoral fortunes.

Rick Kuhn is an Adjunct Reader in Sociology at the ANU and co-authored Labor’s Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class, with Tom Bramble.