On the left, United Voice, the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union lead the charge.
On the right, it’s chiefly the powerful Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), Bill Shorten’s old union the Australian Workers Union, the Transport Workers Union and the National Union of Workers.
Beneath these factional divides, state and territories operate within their own sub-factional groups and even form alliances with each other across factions.
But those divisions disappear once it comes to the workplace.
As one senior party source said, “Labor delegates from unions think of themselves as union national secretaries. They don’t think in terms of Labor NSW Left and Victoria Right. The union left and right have more in common with each other than they do with the MPs.”
However, even a united union movement has clashed with the needs of the parliamentary wing of the party and, so far, the unions are bowing to Shorten’s needs.
On Sunday, Labor rebuffed a bid by the TWU and CFMEU – with the support of the broader union movement – to kick retail funds out of super and fast-track increasing super to 12 per cent from the first year in government.
Instead, the unions agreed to soft aspirational clauses and principles and a bid by the government to increase super “as soon as practicable” on the back of government promises to implement higher penalties for unpaid super.
Shorten’s recent moves to allow for medical transfers from offshore detention also appear to have warded off any move to prohibit turn-back policy on boats from Labor for Refugees, sources said.
“There’ll be no tears like last time,” said one senior Labor source, referring to the disruption at the 2015 conference.
If the left does act up, the CFMEU has taken a position to back the opposition.
The CFMEU enters the conference stronger than ever this year after its merger with the maritime and textile union and its national secretary Michael O’Connor’s presence looms large over the conference.
While the militant construction division sits in the back rows, with powerful Victorian secretary John Setka sitting laid back on the aisle seats, O’Connor sits in the front.
He is credited with uniting the CFMEU, whose strong personalities have previously created division, and is a key part of the militant union’s increasing influence within the ACTU and Labor.
His comrades in the party respect him as a tough and intelligent advocate and the most effective operator in Canberra.
Rarely interviewed by the media, he emerged on Sunday at the conference as the chief supporter of Labor’s $6.6 billion housing affordability plan.
United Voice, which represents cleaners, restaurant workers and security staff, stands with the CFMEU as one of the most powerful left unions at the conference due to its more than 100,000 members. The union frequently teams up with the AMWU to dominate the Labor Left at a state level.
At the helm is national president Garry Bullock, known as the kingmaker in the Queensland government and the chief negotiator for the state’s dominant Labor Left.
Factional insiders say he can sometimes be difficult to pin down.
“He picks and chooses when he uses his power,” one senior Labor figure said.
On the right, the SDA, known as the ”shoppies union”, commands the biggest delegate votes at conference on the back of its more than 200,000 retail members.
The SDA’s background is Catholic and anti-communist, a conservative union that split with Labor in 1955 over its communist ties before returning decades later.
Under its former national secretary Joe de Bruyn, the SDA was the main obstacle against Labor adopting same-sex marriage.
The union still wields huge power and ALP national secretary Noah Carroll was spotted approaching the union’s secretary Gerard Dwyer in the conference halls.
But union sources say the SDA does not use its power as much as it could.
The union has backed off on pushing its conservative social policy agenda since de Bruyn’s departure and is focusing more on the industrial arena.
With the SDA often operating in the background, Shorten’s old union led by the young Dan Walton is often the public face of the right.
Walton, who was made secretary in 2016, comes from an industrial relations family, with his father the president of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.
While the AWU’s membership has fallen in recent years, the union is still spearheading some of the main resolutions at the conference including workers’ representatives on company boards.
The NUW, representing about 80,000 warehouse workers, is more of a maverick player in the right.
One of the founding unions of the Victorian right, the NUW’s ideological alignment has over the years become increasingly nebulous.
The union’s national leaders Tim Kennedy, who has his own parliamentary ambitions, and former assistant secretary Gary Maas, now a Victorian Labor MP, are firmly within the traditional Labor Right.
But other officials are hard left and the union has a strong militant presence at warehouse sites.
“No one knows what they stand for any more”, one party delegate said.
The NUW and United Voice are in formal talks to merge, although the matter still has to be put to the membership and it’s not clear how the NUW would vote under the new union.
But the proposal has some party insiders worried the merger could see the NUW shift to the left, and, with a new 180,000 member union, create a major power block to match the conservative shoppies union.
Sources said the proposed merger did not appear to be affecting factional positions at this year’s conference.
But the move has the potential to strengthen United Voice’s power at a time when other unions, both left and right are challenging its power.
At the state level, sections of the left and right have branched off into splintered groups over the past two years to offset the dominance of other unions. Their main goal is safe state and federal seats.
In Western Australia, the MUA and the CFMEU have split from the “broad left” state faction and joined the right-wing unions, the TWU, the SDA, the AWU and the RTBU, to form a new grouping known as Progressive Labor.
The new faction aims to take seats away from the dominant United Voice, which is seen as favoured by the Labor state government.
In Victoria, the CFMEU and a group of other left unions have split off from the dominant Socialist Left faction. The faction is run by powerbroker Kim Carr and was originally formed after Whitlam intervened in the Victorian party in the 1970s and broke the left’s power.
The new splinter group is known as the Industrial Left and also includes the Finance Sector Union and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union.
It has been supported by a breakaway right faction group, including the SDA and led by Victorian MP Adem Somyurek, which is seeking to break a stability pact between the Socialist Left and Shorten’s Right faction Labor Unity to secure state and federal seats.
These factional divides do not play up on the national level where the message is all about stability and unity.
But as one Labor Left delegate said, the Right faction’s dominance is only marginal, with a fragile 200 votes to the Left’s 190, with the rest of the 400 undecided.
“It’ll be a fractious conference – nobody controls the numbers at conference. Every vote is going to be crucial.”