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What will disaffiliation from the Labor Party achieve for the ETU?

By James Sinnamon - posted Tuesday, 1 July 2008

In recent months the Queensland branch of Electrical Trades Union (ETU) has rightly conducted publicity campaigns against policies of the Queensland Labor Government's which have been harmful to its members' interests.

These include the corporatisation and privatisation of its power generation assets and the consequent neglect of vital infrastructure. The ETU has also conducted an industrial campaign for wage justice for its members and has been critical of the Rudd Labor Government's delays in the repeal of the Howard government's anti-worker “WorkChoices” legislation.

In the Brisbane Times article “Electricity, rail workers to picket Labor conference”, ETU spokesman Peter Simpson complained of “over 12 months of frustrated negotiations” in which “the excesses of WorkChoices were used against state government employees”.


At a protest outside the Queensland Labor Party's conference on the Gold Coast on Saturday, June 21, the Brisbane Times, in its story “QLD Labor stung by protests, poll”, reported:

(ETU assistant secretary Peter Simpson) said the unions had received a slap in the face after supporting Labor through the November federal election.

“How have we been repaid? We have been screwed over and it is a dead-set disgrace,” Mr Simpson said.

However, while Simpson is correct to point this out, it would have been clearly suicidal for the union movement not to have backed Rudd against the anti-trade union Howard government. Whatever can be critically said of the record of the Rudd Labor Government, it was absolutely necessary for the ETU to have campaigned with the rest of the trade union movement to have the Coalition government removed from office.

Peter Simpson continued:

“This may be the last ALP conference that we attend, because I don't think we'll be affiliated with them for much longer.”

While their treatment at the hands of Labor governments is indefensible and the ETU's outrage is entirely justified, their threat to disaffiliate from the Labor Party begs the question of exactly how the ETU can expect better treatment at the hands of any alternative government. Clearly, it would be ludicrous for ETU to hold out hope for better treatment at the hands of a Coalition government whether at the state or federal level.


This conflict calls into question the whole purpose of the Labor Party.

The Labor Party was originally formed in the 1890's to be the political representative of the trade union movement. Its purpose was to form government to enact legislation in favour of the workers upon whose vote it relied to obtain a majority in Parliament.

The conduct of the Bligh Government, particularly in its dispute with the ETU, is only the latest of almost countless illustrations of how far the Labor Party has drifted from this original propose. Far from representing workers or, indeed, any other ordinary members of the community, the Bligh Government, instead, seems to serve a small minority of corporations, land speculators and developers.

Unions such as the ETU need to consider how to rectify this unsatisfactory situation.

One way or another, unions such as the ETU should assert their right to have representatives, who are prepared to act in the interests of members, elected to Parliament. If the ETU sees no prospect of this being achieved by using its voice within the Labor Party, then it should seek to initiate the formation of such a party outside the Labor Party.

However to simply disaffiliate, but do nothing else, is likely to do little to dissuade the Bligh Government from pursuing its current course.

As much as Labor politicians enjoy the fruits of office, many act as if they consider losing office a lesser evil to actually representing the Labor Party's constituency and standing up to corporate interests. They seem to act as if confident that other at least equally lucrative careers will be offered to them by a grateful corporate sector should they lose government. So even the threat of damaging Labor's electoral prospects may do little to change the mind of Rudd and Bligh and, in fact, could backfire on the ETU if it were to result in the election of Coalition governments in the mould of the former Howard government.

The ETU and other unions, such as the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), who are disaffected by the government's policies should loudly demand that the Bligh Government begin to act to serve its electoral constituency. If they did, it is hard to conceive how their voices would not resonate with the rank and file of the Labor Party and other trade unions.

If some of the other unions, who are currently not affiliated to the Labor Party, including teachers' unions and various public sector unions, were to affiliate there would be every reason to hope that the forces in the Labor Party who are prepared to insist that Labor govern in accord with its original purpose, would prevail.

Whether or not this course is pursued, an effective political voice for the trade union movement, whether it comes from within the current Labor Party or without, needs to be re-established.

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About the Author

James Sinnamon is an environmental and political writer, part-time Linux consultant and web administrator. He administers web sites for progressive and environmental causes. Sites include: and In March 2008 he stood as a candidate for Lord Mayor of Brisbane. His day job is as a cleaner and he is a member of the Australian Workers Union.

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