Australia's unions are stepping up their campaign against new building industry laws, promising to take the issue to the ruling Labor Party's national conference in a direct challenge to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
The union movement, which forms Labor's traditional support base, and several Labor lawmakers are angry about the new laws which crack down on trade union abuses in the building industry.
The issue could undermine Rudd's control of Labor's policy-making conference in late July, and could lead to a drop in support from disgruntled union members who want to see benefits flowing from Rudd's November 2007 election win.
"I doubt very much if many trade union officials will break with the Labor Party over this, because of historic and a still very strong relationship between the union movement and Labor," analyst Rick Kuhn told Reuters.
"But I think that lower down, in the ranks of the unions, there can be considerable disillusionment, and that could lose Labor votes," said Kuhn, from the Australian National University.
Rudd, who does not have a union background, is determined to push ahead with the laws, which give authorities the power to compel union members to give evidence about any illegal activity on building sites.
The abuses include unions using their powers illegally to bully workers and employers in the building industry such as forcing workers to join unions.
Rudd's party is due to endorse the laws on Tuesday, ahead of debate in parliament over the following two weeks.
Jeff Lawrence, Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), earlier said the issue of fairness for building workers was a key issue for Australia's union movement, which is fighting falling membership and influence.
Union membership has been declining over the past decade in Australia and only one in five Australian workers, or 1.7 million people, belong to a trade union. In the private sector, 14% of workers are union members.
"Within the Labor Party, within the Labor movement, there is broad support for equal rights for all workers, which is the overriding principle here," Lawrence told reporters.
He said he would hold talks with Labor Party lawmakers to try to force Rudd to change his plan.
An Essential Media poll on Monday found 35% supported the union campaign, but 50% of Labor Party supporters backing the union stance, showing the issue could hurt Rudd's support base.
Kuhn said the union campaign was about more than the building industry laws, and was also a fight over Rudd's stance on measures introduced by the former conservative government, which weakened union influence in the workplace.
"It is a symbol for something that is much broader. It is also about Labor's attitude overall, its hostility to pattern bargaining, its continued insistence on secret ballots," Kuhn said.
Rudd and his Workplace Minister Julia Gillard wanted to show they had taken a middle ground on workplace laws, between business demands and union demands, he said.