The Music of Industrial Relations and the Reality of the Australian Labor Party


Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd and his deputy Julia Gillard are performing three different and sometimes discordant tunes as they ride high in the polls and promote their industrial relations policy.  This is not just a matter of vote maximising; it tells us a lot about the nature and transformation of the Australian Labor Party.

Labor knows it’s on a winner, in the run up to federal elections later this year, with its promise to “rip up” WorkChoices, the conservative Coalition Government’s industrial relations system.  So the Party’s leaders have taken turns on the megaphone, booming out that Prime Minister Howard’s workplace and dismissal laws are unfair.  Kevin Rudd used the word “unfair” fourteen times in his speech on industrial relations to the Press Club in Canberra.  Labor’s policy, his “Fairness Jingle” stresses, will be “fair”; it is titled Forward with Fairness, and the proposed new industrial relations body will be called Fair Work Australia.

“Air on a Dog Whistle” is Labor’s second tune.  The Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Greg Combet got a blast when he requested more details about Labor’s industrial relations policies.  “The ACTU doesn’t tell Labor what to do,” trilled Julia Gillard.  When Doug Cameron, national secretary of the Manufacturing Workers Union, questioned Labor’s policy on strikes and unfair dismissals Rudd told him to “get used to the new realities of the 21st century.”

The final tune emanating from the Labor camp is the symphonic “Variations on the National Interest.”  Both in his Press Club speech and in his contribution to the ALP National Conference discussion of industrial relations, Rudd stressed how the policy, including the large elements retained from the Government’s WorkChoices system, would benefit all Australians.

Dubbed “WorkChoices Lite,” Labor’s policy bans strikes while employment agreements or contracts are in effect and payments by employers to workers for periods during which they take industrial action.  Union efforts to achieve common conditions across enterprises by building solidarity in industrial action that unites workers across enterprises will be prohibited by a Labor government just as they are under the Coalition.  So will voting to strike by a show of hands or a division, as parliamentarians do when they decide on legislation.

The policy only restores the rights of workers unfairly dismissed by small businesses of different sizes if they had been employed for more than six or twelve months.  So the “new” Labor music contains long passages that workers find dissonant — indeed, it is more jarring than the Coalition’s 1996 Workplace Relations Act which preceded WorkChoices and against which the unions fulminated for many years.  But, in performances of this symphonic arrangement, the megaphone theme is a subordinate but reassuring counterpoint to the national interest leitmotiv.

It is a mistake to interpret Labor’s three different industrial relations melodies in purely electoral terms.  They are better understood as products and indexes of the Labor Party’s material constitution.  Pressures from and its connections with business and workers determine the basic form and content of the ALP’s policies and actions.

The megaphoned message about fairness is directed at white and blue collar workers who make up about two thirds of the labour force.  Most are worried by the Howard Government’s industrial relations regime.  The electoral explanation of this tune is valid, but insufficient.

The tune that puts union officials in their place was played on the dog whistle because it might have alienated too many workers if broadcast at a lower pitch.  But Rudd, Gillard and their advisors hope that its shrill notes can be heard, despite the competing megaphone message, by small business owners worried about changes to unfair dismissal rules and the abolition of individual workplace agreements.  The logic here is electoral, but it reveals something deeper about the forces acting on and in the ALP.

The majestic cadences that convey the contribution of Labor’s approach to industrial relations to the national interest contain the specifics of the policy.  It cannot be understood in purely electoral terms.  Despite its inclusion of the megaphone theme, Rudd’s policies on relations between employers and employees reduced the impact of Labor’s best issue and damaged the ALP’s electoral prospects.  The Party’s popularity fell in the poll immediately following the announcement of the policy because it is WorkChoices Lite.

But by embracing a “responsible” industrial relations (and broader economic) agenda, they hope to prevent some corporations from throwing their weight around, forecasting economic gloom and doom if Labor is elected, as John Howard does.  They also know that, in government, they can only sustain economic growth by preserving business confidence and that they have to start doing this before the election.  Labor has never challenged the profit-making logic of capitalism.

Nevertheless, unlike its political rivals, the Labor Party has a distinctive connection with the working class.  It was established out of the mobilisations of the early Australian union movement and their defeats in the industrial confrontations of the 1890s.  Even today, when thirty per cent of union members have voted for the Coalition at the last two federal elections, the unionised working class remains the ALP’s core constituency.

Over the past few decades, the mechanisms which define the relationship between the ALP and the working class — voting base, membership, funding, the roles of trade unions and the Labor left — have been getting weaker.

For example, while unions affiliated to the ALP remain a significant link between the working class and the Labor Party, the influence of union leaders in the Party is on the wane, particularly as a result of the decline in union strength over the past twenty five years.  So desperate are union officials to get Labor back into office with industrial policies that expand the space for trade unions that they are prepared to sacrifice measures that enable workers to fight in their own interests.  Not a single union official voted against Labor’s WorkChoices Lite at the ALP conference, even if there were a few critical comments from the floor.

Union leaders’ preparedness to meekly accept the abandonment of important mechanisms for working class self-defence was in line with the historical concern of the ALP, especially of its right wing, to safeguard profits in order to maintain business confidence and, with luck, gain the support or at least mute the hostility of Rupert Murdoch, who owns much of the daily press in Australia, at the forthcoming election.

The megaphone, the dog whistle and the symphony orchestra continue to play different melodies.  In the future, the ALP’s tunes may change in response to pressures from business and organised workers.  The Howard Government will probably spice up its current repertoire of old economic management hits by playing us some new serenades from its national security and anti-Muslim songbook.  But we cannot expect Labor to abandon the discordances in its industrial relations policy pronouncements and basic orientation; certainly not for harmonies that serve the interests of the workers who will, on current predictions, actually vote them into office.

Rick Kuhn and Tom Bramble have been union and social movement activists for decades and are both members of Socialist Alternative.  Rick is a reader in political science at the Australian National University.  His Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism was published by University of Illinois Press earlier this year.  Tom is a senior lecturer in industrial relations at the University of Queensland, currently writing a book on the recent history of the Australian union movement.  Their accounts of class, the state, and the labor movement in Australia appear in Class and Struggle in Australia, edited by Rick and published by Pearson Australia in 2005.  More details about us are at and

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