Corruption nothing new: Craig Thompson.

Corruption nothing new: Craig Thompson. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

Liberal Party attacks on the Labor Party for its union links have become an easy and effective political salvo with swinging voters in middle Australia. They have impact and cause apprehension with many. In the Kevin '07 campaign, when the Liberals had very little to resist the mood for change from the Howard government to Kevin Rudd, I saw firsthand in focus groups the most effective attack on the Labor Party was that ''seven out of 10 Labor ministers are former union leaders''. The mere association with unions was enough to cause hesitation among swinging voters about switching their vote from Liberal to Labor for the first time in many years.

The big news stories of union corruption and cronyism of late - Craig Thomson, Michael Williamson and back in the '07 campaign, Kevin Reynolds - only reinforce negative union stereotypes.

The extent of the damage is evident in focus groups when you ask people to describe your average union leader - not those who behave corruptly. The image is not pretty. They use adjectives like ''militant'', ''old school'', ''dictatorial'' and ''out for themselves''.

This is hardly positive imagery for the Labor Party or the union movement. In one focus group, one respondent expressed a common view that ''they are more interested in getting a Labor Party seat than their workers''. Again, this is a perception that does a disservice to the majority of unionists who care deeply and work tirelessly for their members and their families.

The union movement has a proud record of achievement that is being clouded by this imagery and these excesses. The list of conditions that would not be there for workers without the Australian union movement is deeply impressive.

However, it is wrong to simply blame the poor perceptions of unions, declining membership and a declining relevance to the Australian workers on ''a few bad apples.'' Cleaning up the excesses won't solve a more fundamental problem for unions.

Research that tries to suggest a better picture of perceptions of unions beyond these excesses is delusional and not facing up to the problem.

The problem runs deep. What unions are perceived to stand for in the minds of many workers is fundamentally out of step with modern attitudes to work. Australian workers are highly aspirational: they dream big, they have great confidence in what they are capable of in their careers given the chance It's an impatient attitude that drives the bosses of many Gen Ys mad. The thought of being a member of a union is at odds with their aspirations.

Modern employees express an entrepreneurial attitude to their own careers, even if working in large bureaucratic organisations. The misconception they hold is that unions are all about conforming, towing the line with everyone else. They don't aspire to lock in with everyone else, they aspire to get ahead of everyone else.

Australians these days are also realistic about a modern competitive world, where you work hard, go beyond the call, and do not just have initiative but also take it.

Unfortunately for the union movement, the perception I hear in focus groups is an association with ''old work practices''.

Now this is simply not the case. Unions have driven great innovation and modernisation in workplaces around the country but the perception is real.

In focus groups, it is revealing to get respondents to imagine a union workplace versus a non-union workplace. The union workplace is projected as ''plodding'', ''only doing what you have to'', ''knocking off right on five'' whereas the non-union workplace is seen as a dynamic, thriving, modern, exciting place to work.

Two unions that have done a great job in bucking the trend and increasing membership numbers are the Nursing & Midwifery Federation and the Teachers Federation. Why? They have been diligent in appealing to the greater good and not just the self interest of their own wages and conditions.

The ANF and the Teachers Federation consistently argue for the welfare of patients or a brighter future for our children's education and their achievements in this regard are significant. Hospitals and schools are under pressure and many people are deeply concerned about this. Nurses and teachers have managed to garner a broad constituency of support that goes beyond their direct membership. I hear much greater positive predisposition expressed towards them than other unions.

Instead of expected union language like ''rank and file'', ''arbitration'', ''delegations'', and ''the workplace'', you will hear the ANF and Teachers Federation talk about nurses and teachers, hospitals and schools. Their language is more human and easier to relate to and connect with.

It is a massive exercise to reposition perceptions of modern unions to do justice to the positive work they do. It involves more than quelling the excesses and bad PR. The challenge is to realign perceptions of unions with the values of a modern aspirational workforce.

Tony Mitchelmore is managing director of research company Visibility, and has been a pollster for nine federal and state Labor campaigns.