Trade Unions and the ALP – the debate continues


A blast from the past – still true today
“Workers Online” The Soapbox – 2001
Darryl Snow (Retired FBEU President) Fires Up

As debate on the relationship between the two wings of the labour movement flares, perhaps it’s time to ask: what’s in it for the unions?

Carr gets a Make Over


The last two Workers Online editorials have covered the topics of the trade union movement’s current relationship with the ALP (not good) as well as a story on the ACIRRT survey that points up the increasing relevance of the trade union movement to the citizens of Australia (bloody good).

Firstly, good on Workers Online for tackling a topic carrying an enormous level of sensitivity amongst the officials of both the industrial and political wings of the Australian labour movement. That being: Where to for our long established relationship?

It may be that my own cynicism led me to believe that the long term cuddle between the ALP and the trade union movement would prefer to remain a “love that dare not speak it’s name”. This increasingly worthy web site has taken it well past the quiet whisper that’s been going on lately -and it’s not before time.

After the 1996 electoral rout that saw Keating and the Federal ALP jointly voted out of the House, those of us that were left were invited to attend regional meetings for a debrief of sorts. If I recall correctly it was a response from the new parliamentary leader Sara-Maree Beazley in an attempt to find out where the vote had gone so horribly wrong.

Overseas in post-Tory Britain we had Tony Blair actively distancing the New Labour team from the trade union movement and contemporarily Beazley had been quoted as making some very similar murmurings about reshaping the ALP without the baggage of the old felt hat brigade from Trades Halls around the country.

At that time, many of the trade union officials at the Kiama meeting I attended were outraged that the ALP might contemplate evicting trade unions from their own bloody house. And further, unions were understandably reluctant to pick up the rent for an ALP in the leafy localities where Kim and Bob sought relevance with this new society. Relevance is as important a topic now as it was then.

As I waited my turn to vent my spleen it occurred to me that Beazley’s New Labor might be right. Not because the ALP needed to distance itself from the pursuit of workers rights. Quite the opposite. Perhaps the time had come for the workers representatives to distance our members from New Labor. My rationale, as delivered to the panel, was that I counted 82 people in attendance at this all-important conference. This, from an ALP branch members catchment that took in an area from Helensburgh to Bega and over the Southern Highlands. I’m not sure how many ALP members are in this region but I’m sure it was a hell of a lot more than I had in my tiny sub branch of my tiny union.

The night before, I had presided over a meeting of 87 union members out of a regional membership of about 160. Twenty five percent of that 160 were on shift and therefore could not attend. All of these people made the effort to turn up to Wollongong to have their say in their union, their jobs and their social issues. So I told ’em. I told these party officials that we were not about to be lectured on relevance when my own little poll indicated that trade unions are more relevant to working people than the current load of jumped up spivs and lawyers that could not deliver for them. The same one’s that formed up the lemming-like rush from the brass plated chambers straight across Macquarie Street and straight over the cliff to an unmitigated electoral disaster.

Moreover, the electorate had just bloody well told them that it was they that were losing relevance to working people-not us. And that it might be a further sign of the unbelievable sanctimony and arrogance that saw them lose the election in such handsome terms if their response was to sheet the blame home to the nasty presence of trade unions. Felt bloody good, it did. Stuff them.

In hindsight, maybe I was over the top and/or the ALP was just being a very bad loser and Sara Maree Beazley was only giving a loud voice to that empty feeling that accompanies being voted out earlier than expected. But in trying to invoke the stain of the trade union movement New Labor could be seen as a worse loser than Andy, the dominatrix and maybe even worse than that insufferable flight attendant.

Ever thought that the real danger that exists for us increasingly relevant cool dude types is in hanging around those sort of people? Although I don’t think he was referring to Bob Carr at the time that esteemed futurist, Zaphod Beeblebrox once put it “These guys are so unhip it’s a wonder their bums don’t fall off.” Personally, I’ve always thought that Bob Carr was less than hip and I am dead sure that he completely lost his bum on the steps of Parliament House a few weeks back.

So maybe that was the sign we were all waiting for. I know that over a thousand firefighters told us that the taciturn behaviour of an increasingly soul-less (and now bum-less) parliamentary wing was no longer part of our desire for the future. Heartily sick and tired of the company we kept, we could take no more and voted ourselves out of the House.

And just quietly from someone who has seen both sides. Trade unionists are much nicer House guests than most of those political types. We were here at the beginning and we’ll be here at the end. As Workers Online suggests-perhaps its time we let the kids loose. We wont evict them but…….No more pocket money, no more home cooked meals, no more running the sideline on our precious days off. Like the sign on my daughters door says:

Kim and Bob

Tired of being harrassed by your stupid parents?


Move out, get a job, pay your own bills

While you still know everything.

Losing Johnno is a misfortune but losing trade unions looks like carelessness.

Darryl Snow was State President of the NSW Fire Brigades Employees Union


About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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