Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

How Unions Brought the Workers Back to Labor

Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

How Unions Brought the Workers Back to Labor

Article excerpt

This report sketches out the story of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Rights at Work campaign from the perspective of Essential Media Communications (EMC), the public affairs company engaged by the ACTU to research, design and assist in implementing the Rights at Work campaign. Since the November 2007 federal election several academic researchers have contacted me to discuss my company's involvement in the campaign. While discussing our work, it occurred to me how little interaction we--professional pollsters and political strategists--have with those researchers who study the field in which we operate.

Having worked for a range of unions for the past decade, EMC had built an understanding, through its extensive focus group and quantitative research, of the way that industrial issues played out with the public. We had also run many free media, that is placing stories in the mainstream newspaper and paid advertising campaigns for our clients. So when the ACTU levied its affiliates $3.85 per member per annum to establish a fighting fund in 2005 (with $5.50 levies in subsequent years), we were given the opportunity to apply this knowledge in the context of a federal election campaign.

The secret of the success of the Rights at Work campaign was the way the professional research and strategy which EMC conducted was integrated into a grassroots campaign that mobilised rank-and-file union members and took their message to the broader community. Across the nation, local Rights at Work committees rolled out the campaign: there was a massive email tree created and delegates from unionised workplaces were deployed like never before. It was this unprecedented marrying of the strategy and the grassroots that was truly revolutionary in Australian political campaigns

From EMC's perspective the 2007 election was the end of a three-year journey to help unions place workers' rights at the centre of the political debate. That sustained effort meant that industrial relations (IR) became the number two issue on the national political agenda and became the number one vote-changing issue. According to exit polling we conducted for the ACTU on election day, 48 per cent of voters who changed their vote to Labor said they did so because of the IR laws. For every vote that went to the Liberals because of their industrial relations laws, at least ten went the other way from Liberal to Labor.

In this paper I explain how the ACTU's Rights at Work campaign was designed, assess its role in an international perspective and prove empirically that industrial relations did, indeed, deliver victory to the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In making our case we draw on the qualitative and quantitative research we carried out for the ACTU and a range of other unions, the logic in designing the television advertising campaign and the strategies for directing the free media and political ground wars.

This paper focuses on the work we carried out on the campaign; it does not assert that EMC was itself the campaign. Indeed the rich partnership with the ACTU, Unions NSW and other political bodies was at the heart of the effectiveness of this campaign. In May 2005 around the suburbs of Australia's major cities, EMC commenced a research project that was to have a profound influence on the way we viewed the Howard industrial relations changes. Our research team was briefed to gauge awareness of the looming Senate takeover and the levels of concern about the mooted industrial relations changes. They convened a series of focus groups of uncommitted voters, where facilitators gauged their attitude to work, their awareness of the Howard industrial agenda and their attitude to labour market deregulation.

This research took place in that grey area between the election result and the new composition of the Senate--which took approximately six months from the closing of the polls. Business groups had already begun to flex their muscle and call on the Howard Government to adopt a hardline industrial relations strategy. …

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