Showing the way forward:Australian union disaffiliates from Labor Party

The Spark October 2010
Philip Ferguson

In July this year, the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) took an important step forward and disaffiliated from the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Over 85% of those who took part in the vote voted to disaffiliate. Dean Mighell, the secretary of the Victorian union, told the paper Green Left Weekly, “Our members have watched over a long period of time as the ALP has attacked their union. . . They like the idea of their union being politically independent and putting their interest first and not the interests of any one party. We didn’t get any sense that members don’t want us campaigning on political issues that affect them. But they don’t see themselves as wedded naturally to the Labor Party.”

Affiliation hinders workers

Mighell noted the affect that being affiliated to the ALP has on unions campaigning for their members, saying, “What I’m bitterly disappointed about is that the union movement only seriously campaigns when the conservatives are in power. In reality, we’ve got conservatives in power now.” The union “looked at how we achieve political change for our members and what the most effective way was to do it”. They decided that they would be much more effective politically by ending their affiliation to Labor.

The process in Australia which provides the background to this disaffiliation is neatly described in the September 10 newsletter of the Socialist Party in Australia. They note that the long period of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments saw systematic attacks on workers, bringing about growing working class disillusionment with Labor and questioning of the usefulness of union affiliation to a party which was attacking their wages, conditions and living standards.

“Since the Hawke-Keating ALP governments of 1983-96,” the newsletter records, “the relationship between the ALP and the more militant unions has slowly begun to unravel. The ALP now stands for privatisation, user pays, and a general diminishing role for the public sector. Unions are expected to sell these cuts to workers on behalf of the party. This is the role that the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) plays today.

“The past 20 years has not only seen the party shift to the right but it has been emptied out of its working class base. It lacks even the most basic level of democracy and it is now just as connected to big business as the Liberal Party. These developments have not gone unnoticed by some sections of workers.”

The newsletter also notes that the Victorian ETU has regenerated itself in the past 15 years, from “a stale branch into a dynamic, strong organisation that is full of active members.” This change in the union in turn brought about “growing pressure in the branch to ditch the link to Labor and this was proven by the overwhelming vote to disaffiliate.”

NZ Labour and the unions

In New Zealand, a process of disaffiliation of unions from the capitalist Labour Party began much earlier, during the fourth Labour government in the mid-late 1980s. Only two significant unions, the Engineers (now the EPMU) and Service and Food Workers (SFWU) remained affiliated. Their leaderships continued to act as conduits for the economically right-wing politics of the Labour Party to be filtered into those unions.

Since the demise of the Alliance party as a significant political force, several small unions have unfortunately drifted back towards Labour, most recently the Maritime Union.

In the next issue of The Spark we’ll look at how poorly union affiliation to the NZ Labour Party served workers historically and why no unions should remain attached to a party which is dedicated above all to managing capitalism.


  1. Not surprising and about time when you consider that Labour parties in the UK, Australia and here in NZ have abandoned the very people those parties were created to support. Julia Gillard recently stated that the ALP was committed to ‘economic reform’ and by this she doesn’t mean progressive taxation or nationalisation of key services, no she means more of the same lining the pockets of the super wealthy.

  2. Philip Ferguson says:

    One of the interesting things about the Aussie Labor Party is that it was not even originally established by unions. It was set up by middle class folk and the number one point in its platform was support for the ‘White Australia’ policy. Of course, support for the ‘White NZ’ policy was also a basic part of the NZ Labour Party’s policy, too; just not the number one point in its platform).

    Affiliation to Labour is utterly debilitating for unions. It ensures that the interests of the managers of capitalism, which is what the LP leaders are all about, come before the interests of workers (which is, at least supposedly, what unions are about).

    I think there will be an article in the next issue of The Spark about NZ unions and the Labour Party here.

    Philip Ferguson

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