2001 ASSLH conference – Theorising peak union formation, purpose and power: A discussion paper

Bradon Ellem & John Shields
Work & Organisational Studies, School of Business, University of Sydney


Peak unions occupy a constantly moving point of intersection between two competing sets of forces: those of organisational unity and class solidarity and the forces of fragmentation and sectionalism. We suggest that for any group of unions to form a peak body a state of internal equilibrium of power balance must exist between the unions concerned. The unions concerned must also be presented with external threats or opportunities. It must be recognised that peak union purpose and power are multi-dimensional and historically variable. Peak body formation and development must be seen as being embedded in and over space as well as in and through time. Common purpose is invariably defined in spatial terms. All peak unionism—indeed all union organisation—is inherently spatialised.


Peak unions have long been part of industrial relations landscapes at the national, state and local and industry scales in Australia and remain by far the most common and important institutional manifestation of inter-union co-operation. Such bodies might be defined as permanent inter-union organisations directed towards furthering defined or assumed common interests or objectives by means of jointly-determined strategies. As Flanders reminds us, peak bodies represent a particular type of inter-union co-operation. They operate on a voluntary basis, with affiliated unions maintaining their separate organisational identity (Flanders, 1974, 67). This said, peak bodies are also remarkably heterogeneous phenomena. Some have a national focus, others a state or regional focus, and still others are local in scope; some are strong, some weak; some have lives which are short and tempestuous, others have managed to outlive all but a few of their founding affiliates. Furthermore, some have remained mere debating forums for affiliate unions; others have grown beyond their founding brief, assuming considerable autonomy in the industrial and political spheres. A select few have come close to being a state within a state, exercising enormous control over both affiliates and the social and political formations in which they are embedded.

These observations raise a number of intriguing questions about the nature of peak unions. Why is it that unions form peak bodies in the first instance? Why do some peak unions become powerful? Why do some peak unions pursue narrowly industrial agendas, while others also embrace wider political and social objectives? These are complex questions and their very complexity perhaps explains why students of labour economics, industrial relations and labour history have been loath to ask them, let alone answer them.

This paper seeks to address some of these gaps in our understanding of peak unions. The paper should be read as both an essay in redress and an exhortation to more explicit theorising about peak union (and union) growth, development and strategy. What we want to offer are some insights which we believe do have the potential to enhance our understanding of the formation, purpose and power of these important and often highly influential manifestations of worker collectivism.

The argument unfolds in three stages. Firstly, we provide a brief critique of existing insights by Australian labour historians and industrial relations writers on peak union formation, purpose and influence. Secondly, building on what we see as the strengths in the existing literature, we outline a preferred hypothesis regarding the “why”, “where”, “when” and “how” of peak body formation. Finally, we set out a model of peak union power and purpose which is multi-dimensional, historically contingent and spatially specific.

A poverty of theory?: Existing conceptual considerations of peak unionism in Australia

According to most existing historical accounts (eg Nairn, 1967, Felmingham, 1983, Donn & Dunkley, 1977, Donn, 1983), the origins of Australian peak bodies can be adequately understood with reference to: an underlying will to unity; the role of far-sighted union leaders and their judicious mediation of existing sectional interests; or the influence of the state (via either the legislature or arbitration tribunals). All of these accounts revolve around the rational pursuit of an unproblematic common cause irrespective of the scale of operation—local, state or national—of the body concerned. These claims, we argue, are at odds with the horse-trading, factional and organisational conflict and forced compromise which seem to to us to characterise peak body origins and ongoing purpose. They also sit uncomfortably with the false starts and temporary collapses which litter the history of peak unionism in Australia. These accounts also tend to overlook or understate the contextual importance of product and labour market conditions and management organisation and strategy and they proceed without any reference to the spatiality of trade unionism.

Perhaps the best insights on peak body organisation in the Australian historical literature are those offered by Raymond Markey. Markey’s study of the New South Wales Labor Council is particularly illuminating in examining the changing relationships between affiliates themselves and between unions and the Council leadership. He sets out four measures of the Council’s authority (membership, structural diffusion of power between affiliates and executive, the breadth of its industrial functions and its political activities) and organises much of the narrative around this framework (1994, 4). In seeking to explain the Council’s growth and development Markey also draws on Allan Flanders’ well known identification of the inter-dependence of “movement” and “organisation” (1994, 6-7). Moreover, his is one of the few studies which seeks to situate the development of a peak body within the changing economic and social context. However, Markey does not deal in any detail with the origins of the body and in this account it appears that the need for closer unity and political influence was more or less axiomatic (1994, preface, 24-6, 16, 36-7).

In sum, few institutional labour historians have thus far been willing to theorise about their own or other case studies. Indeed, their accounts are often structured around narratives which avoid explanation and comparison. There is almost no attempt to explain the nature of, and changes in, power and purpose over time. Peak body formation is represented, either explicitly or implicitly, as the outcome of a conjunction of purposive agency and self-evident objectives. What needs to be recognised, however, is that peak body purpose and power are not immutable but are shaped by the interactions of competing and often contradictory social forces.

Following the ideas of British Marxist industrial relations writer Richard Hyman, we argue that all union structures, including federations, represent negotiated and historically and spatially specific compromises between the opposing pressures of “breadth, unity and solidarity” and “parochialism, sectionalism and exclusiveness” (Hyman, 1975, 41). Where the forces of fragmentation predominate, union confederation will be either irrelevant or unsustainable; where those of unity override, loose confederation is likely to give way to formal amalgamation or even calls for “one big union”. Peak union purpose, power and importance vary across space and time precisely because of the shifting balance between pressures for unity and fragmentation. For the moment, let us suggest simply that critical variables here, we believe, are (1) the nature of the power balance between prospective/actual affiliate unions and (2) the identification, nature and collective interpretation by these unions of threats and opportunities present in these unions’ operating environment. More on these points later in the paper.

A handful of Australian industrial relations writers have attempted to theorise the origins, role and significance of peak bodies. Ross Martin (1966), Braham Dabscheck (1977) and Gerry Griffin (1994) have endeavoured to locate Australian peak bodies within an explicitly theoretical context. They have all focused on the ACTU and were concerned with a narrow, if central, theme, namely that of the “authority” exercised by the national body. We see a number of problems with these approaches.

Firstly, the concepts of “authority” and “leadership” are ahistorical; how and why the ACTU came to be authoritative is under-explicated. In their desire to capture the ACTU’s “essential” significance in the Australian union movement, all these writers reflect the state of the ACTU at particular historical junctures. There is little acknowledgement that the ACTU’s “authority” is historically variable; that its influence can—and indeed did—come and go. While acknowledging the contingent nature of the ACTU’s authority, even Griffin’s explanation remains unidirectional and overly institutional in emphasis.

Secondly, while these authors recognise the dual nature of authority (“authority for/external authority” and “authority over/internal authority”) they fail to explain the linkages and tensions between these two dimensions. Too little attention is paid to the structural and relational specificities of these forms of authority and, in particular, to how these forms are mediated within the peak body.

Thirdly, the positivist epistemology informing these studies is misleading. Conventional measures of authority, such as numbers of affiliates, funding, rules and sanctions, may well be illusory. We suggest that these measures of authority are fetishised manifestations of underlying power relations. Simply listing the industrial and political “functions” of peak bodies and then describing the apparent authority to execute these functions tells us little about how peak bodies are constituted or how they change. There is no treatment of the various sources of power, merely an assumption that the index to be “measured” is (legitimate) authority.

Fourthly, while distinction between factors “internal” and “external” to the organisation is an implicit acknowledgement of the spatialised nature of peak union existence, there needs to be far greater acknowledgement that such organisations—like all organisations—are spatially limited entities—and, at least in the case or local and regional bodies, quite consciously place-bound.

However, two more recent accounts by Australian industrial relations scholars Cathy Brigden and Chris Briggs pick up on some of these problems and suggest ways forward. Both Brigden’s work on the Victorian Trades Hall Council, and Chris Briggs study of the ACTU, reject the notion of authority, arguing that power is a more meaningful way to conceptualise relationships internal and external to a peak body. Power can be taken to mean the ability of one party to impose its will on other parties—to make the latter do what they might not otherwise wish to do.

Adapting Hyman’s model of power relations between individual unions and their members (1975), Brigden argues that in order to understand the power relations in and around peak unions, it is necessary to consider two key aspects of power relationships, namely “power over” and “power for”. Like individual unions, peak unions seek to exert power not only for external collective purposes but also internally over members in pursuit of the organisational cohesion deemed necessary to assert collective interest and achieve external purposes. But internal power relationships are neither uni-directional nor unconditional. Just as the institution and its officials can assert power over its constituents, so, through internal democratic processes, can the membership exert power from below. Moreover, “power over” covers more than the power exerted over affiliates; it refers also to power struggles between affiliates themselves, and between factions within affiliates, over the purpose, strategy and leadership of the peak union. Accordingly, suggests Brigden:

A multi-dimensional notion of power is required in order to unravel and explore the inter-relationships found within inter-union bodies: between the leadership and affiliates, between affiliates, within the leadership group, between the inter-union body and bodies with which it itself is affiliated (Brigden, 2000a, 77).

Brigden (2000b) also draws attention to the linkage between “power over”, “power for” and the construction of peak union purpose. The determination of what constitutes the “collective interest”—primarily a function of the workings of internal power relations—will have an obvious bearing on the construction of peak union purpose. The point here is that, far from being preordained, purpose is dependent on the play of power relations—and the associated ideological issues—within the organisation. In turn, the manner in which collective interest and common purpose are defined and articulated will influence the extent to which certain internal power relations are deemed to be legitimate and the degree of subordination and coercion that affiliates will be willing to tolerate to remain within the compact. Hence, while “power for” and “power over” can be considered separately:

It is their inter-dependence that is critical for not only does “power for” both justify and rely on the exertion of “power over”, so too the legitimacy of “power over” rests on and requires the pursuit of “power for”. For peak bodies, affiliate acceptance of exertion of “power over” will to a large degree depend on the acceptance of the construction of “power for”. (Brigden, 2000b, np)

The formation, survival and effectiveness of a peak body therefore depend on the creation and maintenance of a power equilibrium within the organisation, shifts in which may alter significantly not only the size and structure of the organisation but also its defined purpose and strategic orientation.

Briggs’ work on the ACTU provides us with a useful model for extending our understanding of the shifting sources of peak union power and changes of purpose. Drawing upon the work of European labour movement scholars, Briggs argues that a peak body possesses “unique capacities” (1999, 28) which distinguish it from the unions which make up its affiliate body. In evaluating peak body power, we follow his formulation: that a peak body’s power lies in “its ability to mediate and reconfigure the relations of autonomy and dependence which exist within the union movement and between trade unions and other social forces” (1999, 31). That is to say, there are structured, historical relationships which determine the powerfulness of each peak body. Power cannot be read off from the characteristics of the organisation itself.

Briggs points to three purposes of peak bodies: as agents of mobilisation, as agents of exchange and as providers of collective services or goods. The last of these is plainly the least important. A peak body which merely provided training and specialist advice would be a weak one, as it is difficult to conceive of a group of unions relinquishing a degree of autonomy merely in return for this particular form of collectivity (1999, 28-31). The key lies in understanding the purpose and power of union peak bodies in terms of mobilisation and exchange. Mobilisation takes two forms, the political and the industrial: the former involves organising specific campaigns and promoting political ideologies; the latter involves managing inter-union relations, running industrial campaigns and co-ordinating collective bargaining. Having emerged as the vehicle for some initial “common cause”, a peak body then stands at the intersection between affiliate unions and other social forces (1999, 28-9). In its capacity as an agent of exchange, a peak body acts for unions in relation to these social forces. It may engage in economic exchange, directly bargaining with employer associations, and in political exchanges, ranging from simply lobbying over specific issues to entering into corporatist political arrangements. The gains a peak body delivers through these exchanges are of course premised upon member unions supporting what it does. Put more generally, a peak body must have power as an agent of mobilisation in order to act as an agent of exchange (1999, 29).

Each form of peak body purpose relies upon a particular power source. The power of a peak body as an agent of mobilisation is drawn from the general power of the affiliated unions. We describe this as a delegated power. The power of the peak body as an agent of exchange relies logically upon its prior power as an agent of mobilisation; it is a derived power. It, too, has a specific source: it is drawn from what Briggs and others call the “structural coupling” that a peak body forms with the state and employers. In Briggs’ account of national peak bodies this coupling, in particular with the state, is the essential component in explaining how those bodies become powerful. In short, they are empowered as agents of exchange by the state’s granting them a degree of legitimacy (1999, 11-12, 18, 52-6). Briggs and the authors upon whom he draws argue that many of these bodies become “governing institutions” in corporatist social arrangements (Briggs, 1999, 60). This is not the whole story, though. Within the union movement, there needs to be what Briggs calls a “normative view” which allows for and privileges the role of a peak body as the legitimate expression of general union interests (1999, 69, 72-3). The solidaristic norms of the union movement, without which the formation of peak bodies would be unthinkable, also act as a counter to the constraints which the state and capital impose union peak bodies.

Briggs and Brigden, then, provide a useful development of the work of Martin, Dabscheck and Griffin. Their focus on power, within a peak body and in relation to other social forces, highlights the contested and changing nature of peak bodies. These bodies are complex and unstable because they sit at the intersection of the forces of solidarity on the one hand and the forces of sectionalism on the other. As power relations change with and around peak bodies, then, so too may peak body purpose. The only major problem which we have with the work of Briggs and Brigden is that it does not address the spatiality of peak body activity any more than does the work of the historians in trying to explain the origins of peak bodies. But these bodies do arise at, and seek to work at, particular scales. Furthermore, the development, power and purpose of such bodies do vary across space.

We now attempt to explain our own models of formation and power and purpose, drawing upon and “spatialising” these studies. We begin with the issue of peak body formation.

Theorising peak union formation

Peak bodies occupy particular spaces and, in the processes of formation and development, they both reflect and achieve different spatial reaches. The geographical reach of a peak body is no more given than is the extent of its industrial and occupational reach. How and why unions choose to construct scales of action is one of the critical—and most overlooked—aspects of these institutions. The most obvious aspect of this is that would-be affiliates must agree on that scale of action, be it regional, state or national. Thereafter, the challenges lie in making that body a powerful social force within that particular space.

Neither historians nor industrial relations scholars address the spatial component of capital and labour relations in any deep or sustained way (see Ellem & Shields, 1999). We must, therefore, turn to the work of economic geographers and, in particular, to two axiomatic claims: that all social relations are necessarily spatial in nature and that space has very different meanings for labour and capital. In the words of Doreen Massey:

just as there are no purely spatial processes, neither are there any non-spatial social processes…It is not just that “space is socially constructed”…but that social processes are constructed over space. (1984, 51, 54-55)

In an evocative and subsequently widely quoted turn of phrase, Massey asserts that “‘the spatial’ is constituted by the interlocking of ‘stretched out’ social relations” (1984, 22). For our purposes, this is particularly important because spaces come to have different meanings for capital and labour. Building upon Massey’s work, Storper and Walker point out that, typically, labour is less mobile than capital. Labour is “place-bound” and will generate social institutions which may eventually outlive those who establish them. One such institution may well be, of course, a local peak union body. However, at this stage, the point we wish to emphasise is that all peak bodies have a spatial specificity. (We shall return to the geographers’ concerns and insights when we discuss purpose and power in the next section.) In short, then, the formation of a peak body is necessarily a process in which lines of “community of interest”—of inclusion and exclusion—are drawn in spatial terms as well as in terms of occupation and industry. As with the delimitation of any union entity, the subjective distinction between the “internal” (“us”) and the “external” (“them”) is itself a vital part of  the formative process.

We now proceed to outline a model for explaining peak union formation. We argue that for any defined group of unions (demarcated by space, occupation or industry), peak body formation and organisation is determined by a combination of the following factors “internal” and “external” to the unions within that grouping:


  •       Historical precedent and practice in union strategy
  •       Union density, size and spread
  •       Sectional and ideological divisions
  •       Membership involvement
  •       Leadership agency


  •       The social and technical division of labour
  •        Labour market segmentation, demand and supply
  •       Product market structure and conditions
  •       Employer strategy and organisation
  •       Role of the state
  •       The wider labour movement

This distinction between “internal” and “external” is inherently spatial and, as such, it is also necessary to see peak union formation in explicitly spatial terms. The formation of any peak union must be understood as being simultaneously an act of mobilisation along both class and geographical lines. The internal factors are primarily responsible for determining the degree of inclusiveness of any peak body, its organisational structure and patterns of power and authority. On the other hand, external factors are the primary determinants of the timing of peak body formation, and of peak body strategic orientation and bargaining strategy. This is not to suggest that these categories are mutually exclusive; there is considerable overlap and interaction between the two. For instance, union size, density and spread is obviously predicated on exogenous factors such as market conditions and the prevailing division of labour. So whilst this two-fold categorisation is a useful organising construct, it is the interaction between the two which is of central interest and importance.

We hypothesise that for any group of unions to form a peak body two conditions must apply:

  1. There must be an internal power equilibrium among, or power balance between, the unions concerned;
  2. These unions concerned must be presented with external threats or opportunities which are seen as having significant implications for the group as a whole.

By internal equilibrium we mean a situation in which there is a balance of power. There are two necessary elements for such a situation. Firstly, no one union (or dominant faction within one union) believes it can subordinate the others; and, secondly, no combination of all but one of the unions in the group believes they can be subordinated by the remaining union. In the absence of such a balance of power, at least one union will continue to pursue organisational dominance, whilst others will resist either individually or in combination, perhaps even forming their sub-group peak body. However, even when this internal balance of power does exist, a peak body will only be formed in the presence of a clear external threat or opportunity. In the case of a sub-group peak body formed to resist subordination by another union or unions within the larger group, the predatory union or unions are most accurately categorised as an external threat from the wider labour movement.

Clearly, whatever power any newly-formed inter-union entity possesses is power which emanates in the first instance from its founding affiliates (“power from”). Yet, as Hyman implies, “power from” also connotes “power over”. When individual unions enter into closer unity they conditionally delegate or cede to the inter-union body and, therefore, to other affiliates collectively, a degree of power over their membership, strategies and actions (“power over”). For internal equilibrium to be achieved and maintained, prospective affiliates must believe that no other affiliate or group of affiliates will be able to arrogate this potentially coercive power to themselves.

The recognition of “community of interest” or “common cause” so often referred to as the touchstone of peak body formation is, we argue, best understood as a joint response to perceived external threats or opportunities. Again, though, an external stimulus will only result in the formation of a peak body in the presence of an internal balance of power. By the same token, power balances are necessarily stable and may be disrupted at any time by a change either internal or external to the group. Such a change may cause either the disintegration of an existing peak body and a reversion to organisational autonomy or the amalgamation of some or all of the unions concerned into one or more larger union entities.

This hypothesis assumes that unions are sectional and competitive organisations rather than inherently co-operative and class-unifying bodies. We ascribe this predisposition to the persistence and increasing complexity of the technical and social divisions of labour in market-based societies. These divisions both drive union sectionalism and, in turn, are reinforced by that sectionalism (see Lenin, 1902, Hoxie, 1917, Perlman, 1928). This implies that voluntary co-operation between unions is far from natural or inevitable and that any tendency towards closer organisational unity is just as likely to be driven by forced absorption and amalgamation as it is to derive from any consensual “will to unity”. The voluntary coalescence of autonomous unions into a peak body must therefore be regarded as the exception rather than the rule. It therefore requires specific explanation.

Theorising peak union purpose and power

We believe that the frameworks provided by Brigden and Briggs are the most useful ways to begin to understand the dynamics of peak union purpose and power. In particular, Briggs’ emphasis on the possibility that, over time, a peak union may be able to derive power from external sources serves to remind us that a peak union’s “power over” both its own affiliates and external agents with which it deals may vary qualitatively as well as quantitatively. In particular, by reconstituting itself as an agent of economic or political exchange, a peak union may be able to utilise power derived from organised employers (economic exchange) or the state (political exchange) to enhance “power over” both internally and externally. In either case, of course, the organisation’s espoused values and objectives may be radically transformed and its power relations with affiliates and members may become primarily one of “power over” rather than “power for”.

There is, however, a further dimension to both the purpose and power of peak bodies which cannot be drawn from the work of either historians or industrial relations specialists. We describe this peak body purpose as “social regulation” and suggest that at its most developed it takes two forms: the regulation of labour markets and the regulation of commodity markets. In respect of labour organisations, these are capacities unique to a peak body. Of the various forms of labour organisation, only a peak union (or a “One Big Union”) can intervene across different industrial and occupational labour markets and product and service markets in defence of workers’ living standards.

The sources of power for social regulation build upon the other purposes of a peak body. In order to engage in social regulation, then, a peak body must have capacities as an agent of mobilisation and of exchange. But just as each of these capacities has its own specific source of power, so too does social regulation. For social regulation, however, the power source is primarily normative rather than institutional. We argue that a “place consciousness” is a necessary underpinning for this activity. Place consciousness lies in the ideas and social practices of working class families, residential networks and local labour organisations and in a sharing, or enforcement, of these ideas more widely in a particular space. For social regulation to be one of the activities of a peak body, there must be a broad acceptance or toleration of such a role.

How, then, might place consciousness arise? Once again, the work of economic geographers provides the means with which to re-conceptualise the operation of peak bodies. Given that labour is relatively immobile and that places come to have special meanings for workers and families, there develops “a fabric of distinctive, lasting local communities and cultures woven into the landscape of labor” (Storper & Walker, 1989, 157). Harvey pinpoints a basic truth when he remarks that, unlike capital, “labor power has to go home every night” (quoted in Peck, 1996, 15). For most working people, place is a landscape of intimacy and emotion: the locus not only of daily labour, but of the lived and remembered experience of daily existence (Bailey, 1999; Eklund, 1994; Taksa, 2000). Workers might migrate in search of a livelihood; but in doing so they move from place to place, not merely across geographical space.

Taking these points further, Andrew Herod (1997) argues that workers and their unions are actively involved in the formulation of notions of place—in creating their own “spatial fixes”. Herod’s analytical starting point lies in a spatial specificity: “The process of labor’s self-reproduction must take place in particular geographical locations”. That workers would “want to shape the economic landscape in ways that facilitate this self-reproduction” is hardly surprising (1997, 16). Most importantly, Herod argues that they can and do make spaces in their own image and, indeed, do so in ways which go far beyond the workplace. For instance, labour engages in struggles over the location of work and over investment decisions, over housing, education and transport, over the provision of public infrastructure, and the like. This allows (or we might say requires) us to examine what Herod refers to as “labor’s spatial fix”; that is to say, how workers enact their own “spatial visions”. For our purposes, Herod’s key point is that for workers and their organisations the ability to “manipulate geographic space in particular ways is a potent form of social power” (1997, 3).

What, then, is the precise nature of the link between place consciousness and social regulation? Here, we believe that the work of another economic geographer, Jamie Peck, offers some critical insights. According to Peck, the answer lies in the nature and omnipresence of local labour markets. Local labour markets are pivotal, he suggests, because they constitute “the scale at which labor is mobilized and reproduced” (Peck, 1996, 11). It is here that labour’s emotional attachment to place collides with capital’s restless quest for labour power across space. It is here that the supply of labour is shaped by the structures of families, by education policy and training, by custom and practice surrounding the gender division of labour and by institutions, including unions. In short, says Peck, all labour markets are “locally constituted” (1996, 95, original emphasis), and the supply of labour “socially regulated in geographically distinct ways” (1996, 106, original emphasis). Peck highlights the role that organised labour may play in the social regulation of labour supply to such markets and, hence, in the spatial segmentation of labour markets (1996, 67-69). Similarly, Herod makes the point that union rules may “shape the spatial extent of local or regional labor markets” (1998, 15).

While none of the economic geographers have explicitly considered the role of peak union bodies in the formation and maintenance of local regulatory regimes, we suggest that the work of the economic geographers furnishes invaluable insights into the relationship between place consciousness and peak union purpose and power. Our point is that peak bodies—particularly those on a local scale—can play a vital role in shaping particular spatial fixes and in fostering place consciousness for local regulatory purposes.

It is important to note, though, that harnessing the power of place consciousness also exposes a peak union and its afflitates to the opposing pressures of wider class affinity, on the one hand, and the inward-looking ideology of “community”, on the other. Identities and social agendas based on “class” and “community” may be mutually reinforcing on certain scales, but on other, wider scales the contradictions between the two become all too obvious (cf. Patmore, 1994, 180-183). In short, if a turn to formal exchange with external parties is fraught with contradiction and risk, then the pursuit of place conscious purpose and power may well be more problematic still.

Drawing together these ideas, we suggest that peak union purpose and power can be understood in terms of mobilisation, exchange and social regulation. Figure 1 (below) summarises the hypothesised relationship between these three dimensions of peak union purpose and power. Peak body mobilisation is based upon power drawn from unions themselves; it is a delegated, institutional power. Peak body exchange is based upon a prior mobilisation and structural coupling with other social forces; it is a structurally derived power. In addition, an ideological commitment to united action is a necessary underpinning for both of these peak body purposes. Similarly, social regulation is built upon mobilisation and exchange. While it is not necessarily the case that the local is the only scale at which peak bodies can exercise social regulation, local bodies do seem “best placed” to do so. Indeed, the Barrier Industrial Council is an example par excellence of a local peak body which was able to extend its purpose and power into the realm of social regulation. The locally specific nature of labour markets and the proximity of employers and workers themselves shape the purpose and power of these institutions, along with specific forms of place consciousness. At their respective spatial scales, local peak bodies may indeed be more powerful than national or state bodies.

Figure 1

Peak Unions—Purpose and Power Sources












Dimensions: Economic




Labour markets

Commodity markets

Institutional delegation

Structural coupling


(Locality, region, nation)



We have argued that those few studies which do examine Australian peak unions overlook the temporal and spatial specificities of peak union creation and the contingent and mutable nature of peak union purpose and power. Drawing on insights offered by radical writers in the fields of Industrial Relations and Economic Geography, we have advanced a set of theoretical propositions which, we believe, have the potential to overcome many of the above limitations. These can be reduced to four key points.

Firstly, for any group of unions to form and remain within a peak body, a state of internal equilibrium—or power balance—must exist between the unions concerned. A state of internal equilibrium exists when prospective constituents believe that no one union, and no sub-combination of unions, will be in a sufficiently powerful position to dominate the inter-union body and appropriate its delegated power for sectional purposes. Adapting and extending what Hyman has conceptualised as the duality of “power over” and “power for” in union organisation, we suggest that internal equilibrium involves a settlement between prospective affiliates in relation to three interconnected dimensions of power: “power from”, “power over” and “power for”.

Secondly, even where power balance does exist, for an inter-union body to be formed, potential affiliates must also have defined some external common purpose (“power for”). It is only when presented with a clear threat or opportunity external to the union grouping itself that prospective affiliates, anticipating the possibility of internal power balance, may seek to institutionalise inter-union co-operation in the form of a peak body. Clearly, the specific source/s of external threats and opportunities are key factors in the construction of common purpose. In turn, it is the scope of common purpose (“power for”) which determines the extent to which individual unions will be prepared to delegate power (“power from”) and to subordinate their interests to those of the group (“power over”).

Thirdly, peak union power and purpose are mutable. While peak unions necessarily draw their formative and foundational power from affiliates, over time it may also be possible for them to tap into power sources of an external nature. In so doing, organisational purpose may also be significantly transformed. Indeed, the most illuminating studies conceptualise peak bodies as agents of mobilisation, with power delegated by affiliates, but also (at least potentially) as agents of economic and political exchange, with additional (and quite possibly alternative) power and purpose derived from a “structural coupling” with “external” entities, such as employers and the state. We suggest that there is also a third possible focus of peak body power and purpose: that of social regulation and, specifically, the regulation of labour and commodity markets. It is here that peak bodies seek “structural coupling” with elements within the wider social formation in which they are embedded. Understanding the variety of potential power sources holds the key to explaining not only why some peak bodies command more power than others but also why there is so much historical variation in peak union purpose.

Fourthly, we suggest that peak body formation and development must be seen as being embedded in and over space as well as in and through time. The formation of any peak union must be understood as being simultaneously an act of mobilisation along both class and geographical lines. Peak bodies occupy particular spaces and, in the processes of formation and development, they both reflect and achieve different spatial reaches. The geographical reach of a peak body is no more given than is the extent of its industrial and occupational reach. How and why unions choose to construct scales of action is one of the critical—and most overlooked—aspects of these institutions. Common purpose is invariably defined in spatial terms and while this is most obviously true of local and regional bodies, all peak unions—indeed all union organisation—is inherently spatial.

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