It would be quite a challenge to give an award to the strangest media beat-up of this election year, but the revelations that the ACTU are actually running a political campaign would have to be in the running. Still, it’s given the Government a chance to increase the noise level of its “Rudd is a captive of the unions” theme.

There’s an unexamined premise in commentary about this tactic of the Government – that unions are wildly unpopular. But how true is that? Unfortunately, there is no time series data on union sympathy. But there are three large-scale surveys conducted this decade that reveal some fascinating results.

The most recent was conducted by the Government’s own Office of the Employee Advocate in 2004 – a “freedom of association survey”. The survey involved 3156 interviews, with the majority of the sample drawn from non-unionised employees. Employees were surveyed across all 17 industry classifications, and questions were scrutinised by both the ACTU and the ACCI.

The survey found that 76% of all employees (and 63% of non-union members) valued the presence of a union in the workplace.

In 2003, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, a very wide-ranging survey coordinated by ANU, found that 46% of respondents (n=4270) felt that unions should have less power. Interestingly, 70% felt that the mass media should have less power, and 62% thought big business should have less power.

The University of Sydney conducted a poll of 1100 respondents in 2001 on behalf of the then Labor Council of NSW:

It found that:

  • A majority, 52%,  of people agree with the proposition that “I’d rather be in a union” (up from 44% two years ago).
  • Only 14% of Australians now agree that “Australia would be better off without unions” (down from 23% in 1999).
  • And 56% of respondents agreed that “management has more power than unions” (up from 53% two years ago).

It’s also worth remembering that the majority of unionists are in the public sector and the Dean Mighells of the world, far from battering down old ladies’ doors, are really the residual face of the old unionism. Older voters may remember union militancy and frequent strikes, but both have been in very short supply since the Accord was introduced in 1983 – and a voter born in that year would now be 24.

Of course, these surveys probably measure more about the workplace than the political perception of unionism. But, in the absence of a realistic union militancy bogey for many voters, outside those who are predisposed against unionism anyway, the Government’s attack has most salience because it suggests Labor is captive of a special interest group.

But, conversely, probably the most powerful reason for opposition to WorkChoices is the perception that the Government gave big business what it wanted, instead of striking the balance Kevin Rudd quite cleverly keeps talking about.