The Trade Union Royal Commission’s Final Report made for heavy holiday reading, finding widespread, deep-seated corruption and misconduct in Australian unions, ranging from document destruction to death threats. Labor and unions dismissed it as a “witch hunt”. But witchcraft isn’t real. Union corruption clearly is. And it was obvious from the Commission hearings there are serious problems. And Labor and union leaders won’t confront them.
Labor’s Workplace Relations spokesman declared “We talk about the tip of the iceberg; the tip is some serious but isolated instances of corruption by some union officials. The iceberg is the thousands and thousands of workers in this country that are underpaid and exploited by employers.”
Nonsense. Australians have among the best working conditions in the world and our workplaces are some of the safest. Average annual wages are around 5th highest globally and the minimum wage is in the top 10. Unemployment is low. Worker exploitation is rare and when it occurs it’s more a matter for police than unions.
I support the principles underpinning unions. I was an AWU member most of my life. I came from a working-class family. Everyone I knew lived on the poverty line, working long hours in low paid jobs. Workplace accidents were common. We knew lots of people who’d lost fingers or the like. I always had at least one classmate whose father had been killed on the job. Our neighbour died being sucked into a machine. As an Aboriginal man, my father earned a third of the wages of others doing the same job. The AWU helped him secure equal pay.
The labour movement helped deliver the working conditions Australia enjoys today. But another critical driver was economic prosperity. Employers can only provide generous conditions if their businesses are prosperous.
Workers do better under a strong economy. It’s not good for workers if employers are unprofitable; if unions cling to practices that are redundant in a modern workplace; or if employers can’t operate productively. Unions can hurt workers if they make it hard for companies to do business.
Consider the Boral “black ban”. During its dispute with Grocon, the CFMEU demanded Boral stop supplying Grocon with concrete. Boral refused so the CFMEU blocked Boral trucks from worksites across Melbourne. Boral couldn’t supply most high-rise developments in the Melbourne CBD for years and lost business and long term customers. It didn’t just harm Grocon and Boral - many drivers and workers would have been self-employed contractors, ordinary working people who go unpaid if work dries up.
Why did the CFMEU do this? Because Grocon wouldn’t let it choose the shop stewards. CFMEU claims it was about safety are laughable. Blockading sites, verbally and physically threatening workers, street battles with police and forcing workers to go to work with a police escort aren’t the actions of people who care about safety.
Today only 15% of workers are members of unions. Unions haven’t kept up with the priorities of working people. They’ve stopped focusing on the workers and become fixated on the bosses. Militant unions like the CFMEU target the employer as an enemy, fighting for control over worksites. Other unions, like the AWU, buddy up to the employers negotiating deals that include benefits for the union itself. Both involve unions turning their gaze to the employers.
The CFMEU blatantly flouted the law. Stopping them took years, leaving a window for illegal activities to continue. It was 3 years before Boral concluded its lawsuit and the ACCC proceedings are still on foot. Boral’s CEO said "On the construction sites in Melbourne the law doesn't apply. The law is applied by the CFMEU".
Australia is a Western nation with all the institutions that come with it – democracy, personal freedoms, the rule of law and high standards of governance and business. It’s unacceptable for Australia to tolerate corruption and flagrant flouting of the law in any segment of its economy.
Corruption and disregard for the rule of law hinder economic growth. Corruption increases the cost of doing business and reduces profitability and productivity. It diverts company resources away from activities that generate jobs. And companies don’t want to invest in places where they can’t enforce legal rights or get timely legal redress.
Unions should be subject to the same rules of governance, transparency and financial disclosure as public companies. Their senior officials should have the same duties as company directors. And unions must respect the rule the law, with swift penalties if they don’t, including deregistration and personal liability. If Parliament can’t deliver this, it will have failed.
Bill Shorten has said “If Mr Turnbull and his Liberals want to fight an election on industrial relations, bring it on. We won on WorkChoices & we’ll win again.”
But this isn’t about WorkChoices. It’s about governance; and the kind of country Australia wants to be.
This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 9 January 2016.
Labor and union leaders must confront corruption
9 January 2016
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine