Confirmation by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that the trade union membership decline is continuing apace was bad news for union leaders but not necessarily for Labor Leader Kevin Rudd.

For a start, the union movement knows that the coming election will be a last chance to stop sliding to virtual irrelevance. The return of a Coalition Government would increase the trend which has seen the proportion of Australian workers in a union fall from 35% to 20% since 1994 so there is no point in keeping money in reserve. Every available dollar must be spent by the unions in an effort to get Labor in to office. This should see Kevin Rudd in charge of a record advertising war chest.

With the figures on declining trade union power so stark, the Opposition Leader has the opportunity to tailor the Labor Party message on industrial relations law changes to the broader community. He himself looks a lot different from the traditional labour type of Labor leader and he can use the coming party conference to manufacture some issues where he boldly defeats the union delegates.

Knowing that a Rudd victory against John Howard is their only hope of maintaining at least some of their power, the union bosses will gracefully cop hearing that the new modern Labor Party is no longer the political wing of the labour movement.

Mr Rudd can, however, gain an advantage from talking about how the changes that have seen a decline in the past conflicts between capital and labour, and a decline in trade union membership, have increased, rather than decreased, the need for government to adopt the role of ensuring fairness in the labour market. His new way can be guaranteeing that those least capable of negotiating on their own behalf still receive decent rates of pay and conditions.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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