Why Does the Trade Union Movement, Overall, in Australia, Support the Labor Party

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Why does the trade union movement, overall, in Australia, support the Labor Party?

INR210 - Assignment 1

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Introduction

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the trade union movement have ties which date back to the late 1800’s. Historically, the union-party relationship in Australia has been close. Indeed, through much of the twentieth century, the industrial and political organisations were commonly referred to as the “two wings of the labour movement” (Griffin, Nyland & O’Rourke, 2004, p. 89).

The ALP was formed out of trade union activity during this period and the realisation that without direct political representation in parliament, and a means by which employers could be forced to recognise union organisations, they were ill-equipped to defeat the collective power of the employers (Bray, Waring, & Cooper, 2009 p. 205).

In the years since, the two organisations have continued to advocate the rights of working Australians through legislation, extensive lobbying and agreement on policy matters.

However, it must be recognised that the two parties are separate identities and the information contained below will highlight the relationship that the organisations have maintained since establishment and provide an overview of the direction of the relationship in the current political climate and in view of the ideological connection that they both have to represent the working class.

This paper will also outline the direct actions that the union movement has taken over time to lobby government for change, or lobby the public for the change in government in matters such as the Work Choices legislation whereby an extensive and calculated campaign was a direct cause in change of government from the non union sensitive coalition government to the Rudd Labor government in 2007.

The paper will also look directly at the behaviour of union membership, of which is in decline, and the voting preferences of the union members during elections.

Where it all began

The earliest trade unions in Australia date from the late 1820s and were initially small and were mainly confined to tradesman and based in one locality. During the second half of the 19th century trade unionism had spread to miners, transport workers, shearers and factory workers (Patmore, 1996, p. 521)

However, it was not until the 1850s that unions were able to lay claim to any degree of permanency as many of the organisations had been short-lived and few were able to survive the economic slump of the 1840s (Bray et al., 2009 p. 204-205).

The ongoing development of the union movement was heavily influenced by the discovery of gold during the 1850s that allowed for a degree of stability This stability was created through the impact of increased immigration, fossicking for gold, and the propensity of these immigrants to support the traditions of unionism. Additionally, the union movement took advantage of the “sustained period of economic prosperity that created conditions of labour shortage and gave workers the bargaining power to form strong organisations” (Bray et al., 2009 p. 205).

At the time Australian workers formed peak union councils in most major cities and began holding a Trade Union Congresses from 1879. It is estimated that there were 10,000 strikes in the rural industry in the 1880s following from significant strike action in the 1871s (Livingstone, 2003, p. 69)

By 1891 over approximately 20% of workers were organised in the New South Wales and Victoria which at the time were the two largest colonies (Bray et al., 2009 p. 205) however with the loss of four major strikes between 1890 and 1894 resulting in the enforcement of employment conditions that were unknown since the 1860s the unions had learned the lessons of defeat and recognised that without...
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