Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to find how the changing relationship between labour and political parties influenced the growth of reasonably independent labour unions in Taiwan. Design/methodology/approach – The authors have drawn on data collected through in-depth interviews of union officials, labour activists and members of legislature from two major political parties in Taiwan. Findings – The authors found that the breach between labour and political parties was affected by the eventualities contemplated in democratisation. Though the DPP (Minchin-tang/Democratic Progressive Party) provided the initial “shot in arm”, autonomous unions have not necessarily grown underneath DPP’s dominion. Political liberalisation of Taiwan’s industrial relations systems has gained more momentum when the DPP was in opposition than in power. Anti-incumbency pushed independent unions to sway the opposition’s backing when Kuomintang (KMT/the Chinese Nationalists) was in power and not to that extent when the KMT stepped down. The autonomous labour movement in Taiwan was initially influenced by the changing relationship between labour and ruling parties. However, the movement was subsequently shaped by the ethnic and political characteristics based on the historical divide between the mainlanders and Taiwanese and Taiwan’s changing economic landscape. Research limitations/implications – Specific limitations include the subjectivity of the inference and lack of generalisability of the findings that are based on interviews with two out of three players of industrial relations system. Practical implications – Because of globalisation and global financial crisis that brought together a new generation of workforce who hold individualistic values, have lesser faith in collectivism and perform new forms of work where unionisation is no more relevant, the autonomous labour movement in Taiwan was hugely impacted. Originality/value – Growth of independent unions is not being shaped by democratisation alone. If we refocus the debate about democracy’s implied relationship with the rhetoric of national identity, one can see the crucial role played by the changing economic landscape and ethnic divisions ingrained in political origins.