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Unions: don't listen to the Greens' Siren Song

By Peter Lewis - posted Friday, 1 November 2002

There is nothing for trade unions to celebrate from Labor’s loss in the Cunningham by-election.

Local trade unionists, who were instrumental in the victory of a Green candidate in possession of a pure platform, will ultimately achieve little more than a warm inner glow from bashing the ALP hierarchy.

Sure, the Cunningham vote represents a protest against the excesses of machine politics; but it should be seen as no more than that: taking a seat from the ALP will do nothing to promote the labour movement’s long-term interests.


The problem with the Greens is that to build their base they must inevitably weaken Labor’s – with the only long-term winner being the Howard Government.

Whatever their problems with pre-selection, policy or Party personalities, unions should not withdraw from the ALP; rather it makes the need to engage all the more compelling.

If they don’t like the way the party is currently run, unions should get their members active in branches and influence policy from the grass roots; while exercising their institutional influence in a more constructive manner than just bolstering the numbers of their factional masters.

That said, the ALP has a responsibility to select genuine community candidates and develop policy that promotes union values first and then wins over the public; rather than just reacting to the latest poll.

Although the political wing often maddens us with its conservatism and self-focus, unions have a responsibility to its members to work for the election of the party it created more than 100 years ago.

Cunningham is a wake-up call for both wings of the labour movement – the political wing is vulnerable without the support of the industrial wing; but so too does the industrial wing need a political voice.


The Greens will never deliver the unions’ agenda; and by taking seats away from Labor they will only make that agenda more desperate.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the crew are on their long journey home when they encounter the Sirens, beautiful maidens who lure sailors to their deaths with an irresistible song.

Odysseus fills his crew's ears with wax to save them from temptation, while he ties himself to the mast so he can hear their tune without being led astray.

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About the Author

Peter Lewis is the director of Essential Media Communications, a company that runs strategic campaigns for unions, environmental groups and other “progressive” organisations.

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