Does union power still frighten voters #2?

According to The Australian‘s take on a Newspoll on unions and political parties on Friday:

…the Coalition’s campaign [on union power] is not resonating with middle Australia as 55 per cent of voters rate Mr Rudd’s handling of unions as good and only 27 per cent rate his performance poorly – including 10 per cent of Labor supporters – while 50 per cent say Mr Howard is not doing a good job. …. while the Coalition claims it is on an election winner with its plans to demonise the unions, the Newspoll suggests voters will be more discerning.

This is a different conclusion to the one I came to a couple of weeks ago, when I argued that though improved union behaviour has been rewarded with significantly fewer people thinking that they have too much power, there was life yet in this issue for the Coalition.

I see two problems with the Newspoll. The first, as I noted in several posts about issue polling, stances on issues and party preferences are often closely tied together, so it is hard to know whether a person supports party X because of their stance on issue Y, or holds their opinion on issue Y because of their support for party X. Mentioning the party in the same question as the issue, as Newspoll does in this case, increases the chance that underlying party preference will drive opinions on issues.

For electoral purposes, the most interesting opinions are of those of people who do not give any party identification, which I provided in my first post. These are the people whose opinions on the issue are most likely to drive which major party they ultimately support (perhaps at a second or lower preference). In this Newspoll, the most interesting results are therefore not the overall aggregates, but the fairly high uncommitted group (16%), the 11% of people at this stage planning to vote Labor who think the ALP caters too much to the wishes of unions, and the 21% of people planning to vote for the Coalition who think that it caters ‘not enough’ to the needs and wishes of Australian unions.

The second difficulty with the Newspoll is that phrases like ‘union power’ and ‘needs and wishes of Australian unions’ combine issues on which opinion is likely to differ. There is a broadly positive view of the role of unions in securing wages and conditions. For example in the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 46% of respondents agreed that ’employees will never protect their working conditions and wages without strong unions’ and nearly two-thirds agreed that ‘without trade unions the working conditions of employees would be much worse than they are’. So that aspect of union power – which many people probably perceive WorkChoices as having eroded – is something the Coalition won’t get any political advantage out of attacking.

But that is not what they attacking (now). The focus is instead on another aspect of union power, the violence, intimidation and stand-over tactics which long characterised the waterfront and the construction industry in particular. Though this has been substantially reduced, the ETU and the CFMEU are obviously keen to go back to the old days, something I expect would find little support in public opinion. Labor’s decision to delay abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission is a sign that they recognise this.

Nor would the public be happy to go back to constant strike-caused chaos. Though this is a less realistic fear than what would happen in the building industry if restraints were lifted, the flipside of giving unions more power in the setting of wages and conditions is probably increased strike activity to gain leverage over employers. Because of this, it is a more complex argument for the Coalition. But many people who remember the 1970s or even the 1980s probably retain some residual doubt at least about giving unions more power.

Update 2 July: A Galaxy Poll in News Ltd papers asks:

Have the recent actions of some trade union officials made you more inclined to vote for the ALP at the next federal election, less inclined to vote for the ALP, or will these actions not influence your vote?

Most people (67%) say it will not influence their vote, and mostly those who say it makes them less inclined are spinning Coalition voters (38%, compared to 20% of the sample). As with Newspoll, the most interesting figure – what undecided voters think – is not given. The only real point of interest is the 8% of Labor voters who indicate some concern about the behaviour of union officials.

14 thoughts on “Does union power still frighten voters #2?

  1. Andrew, given that few people will even have a memory of what a strike is and how it might effect other companies, workers etc and also the fact that union membership has dropped out of sight the Libs are essentially saying contradictory things.
    The Union’s have declined measurably in influence but they also pose a direct threat.

    Not surprisingly in focus groups people bring this up. It also doesn’t help that Howard is damaged goods in making up ‘threats’ to society.

    It hasn’t bitten and won’t bite.


  2. Homer – Most people my age or above, which would be around half the electorate, would remember the frequent strikes of the past (if only for the added school holidays they had because teachers were on strike, or because a public transport strike stopped them from getting to school). Whether they would believe these days could return is, of course, quite another matter.


  3. Half the electorate might have a memory of strike activity but very few would appreciate the role of the unions in pushing for regulations and rigidities in areas like medical care and the aged care industry (described in the Hogan report). Not to mention their wage push on state governments which the IPA has described as a major cause of bad resource allocation, run down of infrastructure and waste of GST revenues at state level.


  4. with great respect Andrew,
    when in the last ten years or even fifteen did anyone have to put up with a strike which disrupted their life.

    That is why the issue isn’t biting. ‘Union bosses’ have no power and the punters realise it otherwise the issue would have bitten by now.

    Rafe appears to have forgotten about the greatest regulation we have seen in the labour market ie Workchoices.
    Not surprising though.


  5. Andrew, your analysis is very clinical as usual. Let me add a few thoughts.

    You point to two issues being targeted by the Coalition:
    – the violence, intimidation and stand-over tactics of some union leaders;
    – the risk of increased strike activity

    There is a third target of Hockey and Howard viz.
    – the ‘invisible undemocratic influence that the unions have over the ALP (through their funding and over-representation at national conferences).

    I believe the first target will get the Coalition nowhere because most unionists are not prone to violence or intimidation (and I have had plenty of dealings with them as public servant). They are prone to bad language but so what? Don’t Rudd and Howard swear privately? Don’t most employers swear? Indeed I believe Rudd has over-reacted and created a trap for himself (who knows what the next tape will discover?).

    The second target of the Coalition has more promise but the right to strike will be severely curtailed even under Labor. The Unions will have few teeth except during the negotiating period. Labor should be able to calm fears on this front.

    The third target (which you are aware of but did not mention in this last posting) has most potential. True, the equally invisible and more powerful business leaders are also seen by the electorate as too close to the Liberals (more than ever now after WorkChoices and the proposed advertising campaign). But I suspect Rudd will be more restrained and sensitive about attacking “big bad” business influence as he is desperate to win business over himself – whereas the Coalition has nothing to fear by blasting the “evil” influence of unions.


  6. “when in the last ten years or even fifteen did anyone have to put up with a strike which disrupted their life.”

    Tube strike, London, September 2002. 😉


  7. Fred – As you note, I was writing about what unions would do with extra power in the industrial context – something that could be of concern regardless of how much power the unions directly have over the ALP. But there is, as you point out, the issue of whether it is desirable for an interest group to have so much influence, which extended well beyond strictly industrial issues in the Accord era.

    Business influence in Australia is not institutionalised in the way unions are institutionalised. Business has nothing like the ACTU and no institutional ties to the Liberal Party. Personal connections can be important, but they come and go.

    The main influence of business is not even directly planned. When policy affecting business is poor, less is invested and this flows through to higher unemployment and weaker tax revenues, with the political impact being experienced at that point.


  8. Andrew, methinks you exaggerate the role played by institutionalisation.

    The Labor leader and his parliamentary colleagues have always controlled the national policy platform (before and after Labor wins government) because (a) the Union representatives at the National Conference do not vote in bloc (they are easy to play one against another) (b) they are afraid to destabilise the leader and (c) they have nowhere to go (they cannot team up with the Coalition and they generally detest the Greens) so they grumble a lot but are forced to accept whatever the Leader imposes on them.

    This is happening again under Rudd. Indeed I am sure that much of what Rudd and Gillard are proposing (on IR, protection etc.) is anathema to many at the ACTU and, if Labor won government, they would have no greater influence on a Labor Government than Business. Governments of all persuasion target the median voter. Look at the record under Hawke and Keating. I believe the ACTU, especially Bill Kelty, had very close access to the PM – but so did business (directly or through EPAC) and their interests were always weighed against each other.

    On my experience as a public servant, the lobby groups (be they unions, industry associations or individual business leaders) exercise their influence behind the scenes and not through any institutional forum. They do so through the power of reason mixed with threats – with business threatening to invest less or ship jobs abroad and unions threatening strikes. Business still has that power – indeed more than ever under globalisation. The Unions now have a narrower membership and a much more limited capacity to strike.

    Overall, therefore, business has much more power over governments (Left or Right) than unions. That is the reality.

    That said, I agree it is not a good look for Labor that the Unions have disproportionate voting rights. So you have a valid point there.


  9. Fred – Overall, I think Labor’s union link gives them a structural advantage, with access to money and manpower the Liberals cannot match. You could also argue that many unionists have a far better hold on reality than the middle class types who would otherwise dominate the party. In any case, it’s probably worth them losing a few votes to keep in place the infrastructure that helps them bounce back after electoral setbacks. The issue which these posts are examining is how many votes are in play, not whether Labor should have union links or not.


  10. Andrew Norton wrote:
    The main influence of business is not even directly planned. When policy affecting business is poor, less is invested and this flows through to higher unemployment and weaker tax revenues, with the political impact being experienced at that point.
    This is the mechanism that has kept Mitsubishi building cars nobody wants to buy in Adelaide for the last 30 years – business friendly policy isn’t always positive, especially where there are entrenched interests involved. Effectively, big companies like Mitsubishi can hold us to ransom by insisting on subsidies so local economies don’t collapse. Unions don’t have anywhere near the kind of power that big business does, and didn’t have that kind of power even at the peak of closed shops (their members have to eat, after all).


  11. David – For once I agree, ‘business-friendly’ policy is often not positive. Subsidies to the car industry are the expensive legacy of tariffs, which encouraged investment that could not pass a commercial test, such as Mistubishi’s local manufacturing.


  12. I found it interesting the ABC lead with the headline “63% of voters said the governments anti-union campaign wouldn’t change their vote”.

    Surely that explains nothing? If you have ~30% rusted on voters on either side of the fence, of course they aren’t going to change their vote as a result of the campaign.

    Though I guess “~40% of voters are more likely to change their vote” is not the ABC’s style, is it?


  13. It is amusing to see the union upper echelon whipped into action and defending workers. Not so long ago, Mr Carr moved to protect insurance industry profits by limiting the benefits of workers injured at work. I don’t recall the union offering much opposition. Oh, a campaign was directed at Carr which lasted all of three days or so. It turns out that refugees and asylum shoppers have more avenues to appeal decisions than Australian workers injured on the job.


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