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The Paradox of Partisan Trade Unionism: the Australian Case


Let me state at once the paradox referred to in the title. In nearly all capitalist countries, including Britain and Australia, most important trade unions are partisan in politics. That is, they openly, and as a matter of permanent policy, support a particular political party against its rivals. In a few countries, again including Britain and Australia, they actually become a part of such a party, through affiliation. If we look at the affairs and activities of the trade unions, there is little to suggest that this is an unpopular policy among their members.

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1 For example, a statement by E. J. Nicholls, secretary of the Public Service Association of New South Wales: ‘We are opposed to any party political link. We think it would be fatal for public service unions. We know that our members support a number of different parties.’ Australian, 30 March 1971.

2 This is the view of Jack Mundey, the New South Wales Secretary of the Building and Construction Workers’ Federation. He has been one of the most prominent advocates of union involvement in a wide range of social issues. However, a report of a broadcast statement made by him says: ‘ “I personally believe that a union movement in any country should be completely independent.” [Mundey] said the union movement should be political but should not be tied to the fortunes of one political party.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 11 December 1972. It should perhaps be added that Mundey is a member of the Communist Party of Australia.

3 Goldthorpe John H., Lockwood David, Bechhofer Frank and Platt Jennifer, The Affluent Worker: Political Attitudes and Behaviour (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968 pp. 25–9.

4 Butler David and Stokes Donald, Political Change in Britain (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 168.

5 Butler and Stokes , Political Change in Britain, pp. 151–2.

6 Grunfeld Cyril, Modern Trade Union Law (London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1966), pp. 288314.

7 Figures for the period between 1947 and 1958 show that over 75 per cent of members of unions with political funds contributed to them, and the proportion who ‘contracted out’ was actually even lower than this figure might suggest. See Martin Harrison , Trade Unions and the Labour Party (London: Allen and Unwin, 1960), pp. 32–7. More recently, McKenzie and Silver found that only 7 per cent of the unionists in a sample of working-class electors had ‘contracted out’. Mckenzie Robert and Silver Allan, Angels in Marble: Working Class Conservatives in Urban England (London: Heinemann, 1968), p. 99.

8 Further information on the Australian Survey Project, and analysis of the data which it provided may be found in Kahan M. and Aitkin D., Drawing a Sample of the Australian Electorate (Canberra: Australian National University, 1968); Aitkin D., ‘Electoral Behaviour’, in Mayer H. and Nelson H., eds., Australian Politics: a Third Reader (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1973); and Aitkin D., Kahan M. and Barnes S., ‘What Happened to the Depression Generation?’, Labour History, XVII (1970), 174–81.

9 The figures for distribution of union membership by State and by sex are from the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Labour Report No. 54, 1968 and 1969. The figure for ACTU affiliation is from Rawson D. W. and Wrightson Suzanne, A Handbook of Australian Trade Unions and Employees’ Associations (Canberra: Australian National University, 1970), p. 12. The figure for ALP affiliation is from Rawson D. W., ‘A Note on Affiliations with the ALP’, Politics, VI (1971), 94–5.

10 In 1961 it was estimated that ‘at most’ 65 per cent of Australian unionists belonged to unions affiliated with the ACTU. See Martin R. M., ‘The Authority of Trade Union Centres: The Australian Council of Trade Unions and the British Trades Union Congress’ in Isaac J. E. and Ford G. W., eds., Australian Labour Relations: Readings (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1966). By 1971 the corresponding figure was 79 per cent. See Rawson D. W., A Handbook of Australian Trade Unions and Employees’ Associations, 2nd edn. (Canberra: Australian National University, 1973). p. 17.

11 See Rawson and Wrightson , Handbook of Australian Trade Unions and Employees’ Associations, p. 12.

12 This is consistent with the results reached in one of the few other studies which separate members of the principal trade union federation, made up mostly of manual workers, from other unions. It was particularly necessary to do this in Sweden, where nearly one-third of the total number of unionists belong not to the largest union federation, the LO, which is partisan, but to one of the non-partisan federations of non-manual workers, TCO and SACO. According to a survey carried out in 1964,81 per cent of LO members said that they had voted for socialist (i.e., Social Democratic or Communist) candidates at the previous election, compared with 39 per cent of the white collar federations. See Särlvik Bo, ‘Socio-Economic Predictors of Voting Behaviour: Research Notes from a Study of Political Behaviour in Sweden’, in Stammer O., ed., Party Systems, Party Organisations and the Politics of New Masses (Berlin: Institut für Politische Wissenschaft an der Freien Universität, 1968), p. 392.

13 Respondents who said that the unions should usually support one party were then asked which party they should support. Of these respondents, 88 per cent named the ALP. Only 5 per cent named a party other than the ALP; the remainder ‘didn't know’.

14 It will be seen that the organization of the data makes no allowance for those who have a long history of union membership but who have belonged to different unions. This is one of the ways in which, because of the more general purpose behind their collection, the data do not tell us all that we should like to know about union membership.

15 For example, Butler and Stokes , Political Change in Britain, pp. 4464, and Aitkin, Kahan and Barnes, ‘What Happened to the Depression Generation?’

16 Campbell Angus, Converse Phillip E., Miller Warren E. and Stokes Donald E., The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960), p. 324.

17 Seventy-five per cent of the ACTU unionist respondents were born in Australia, the remainder being almost evenly divided between those born in Britain and Ireland and those born elsewhere. Only 4 per cent had voted at a federal election prior to 1925. From 1925, voting, as well as the registration of those qualified to vote, has been compulsory.

18 Chi-square has, of course, been calculated from the raw data and not from the percentages as given in Table 5.

19 The fuller tables from which Table 6 has been calculated show that the difference between the cohorts on the question of union support for a party is significant at the 5 per cent level for all non-unionist respondents and at the one per cent level for non-unionists who thought of themselves as Labor.

20 The principal growth in Australian unionism during the last four years has been in non-manual occupations and most of this has been due to the increased enforcement of union membership, following agreements between unions and employers. As a result, there are probably now much greater numbers of non-manual Unwilling Conscripts than at the time the survey was taken.

21 Goldthorpe et al., The Affluent Worker, pp. 7680.

22 Vail Mark Van Der, Labor Organizations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 170–1.

23 Though the Unwilling Conscript could be said to ‘exchange’ financial support for the right to work, this seems an unduly forced meaning of exchange. It is comparable with the pseudo-exchange which takes place when a man ‘exchanges’ his money for his life in a hold-up. See Blau Peter M., ‘Interaction: Social Exchange’, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan/Free Press, 1968), Vol. 7, p.453.

24 Blau Peter M., Exchange and Power in Social Life (New York: Wiley, 1964), p. 250.

25 Lipset S. M., Introduction to Robert Michels, Political Parties (New York: Collier, 1962), p. 31.

* Department of Political Science, Australian National University.

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British Journal of Political Science
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