Open Labor NSW: unions and the ALP

It’s time to revitalise the Trade Union movement and its relationship with the ALP. Current scandals and decline in union density underscore the problem.

The Trade Union movement has been a bulwark of democracy and progress in this country. It is an arguable proposition that the country would be a pale imitation of its standing in the world without the determination and struggle by unionists since at least the 1850s with the 8 hour day. It is inconceivable that the powers who ran the major corporations then would have conceded the benefits we now take for granted including those at the workplace and those obtained through parliamentary initiatives.

Distinguished academics have argued that Australia’s investment in its institutions - including the union movement - has been the primary factor that differentiates our performance from other similarly placed countries since the 1850s.

Nonetheless the union movement has been in a constant struggle for its legitimacy to be accepted and recognised particularly against conservative forces for whom trade unions represent an unnecessary limitation on their unbridled prerogative to manage with impunity. Corporate support for individual employee contracts refers; they simply do not want a ‘third party’ to, in any way, intervene between themselves and their employees, including trade unions, independent government agencies or anyone else. As if any individual worker could have anything other than a subservient relationship to the big corporations.

Having said that, and accepting that trade unions are a legitimate and appropriate vehicle to represent worker interests, it behoves the trade union movement to be exemplars of responsibility, transparency, accountability and democracy. They should be the gold standard of efficiency and effectiveness in administering their representation of worker interests. No one watching the Royal Commission into trade unions could possibly assert that the administrative systems that have been exposed represent best practice or anything like it. The auditors who have passed union accounts without qualification stand condemned and should have action taken against them by their professional bodies. Union credit cards used in brothels? Give us a break. Yet this is but one of a myriad of instances where sharp auditors should have picked up malfeasance and reported same to union management committees the vast majority of whose members are scrupulously honest. Admittedly, these practices have been exercised by a tiny minority of corrupt union officials but the whole of the union movement’s reputation has been tarnished and dragged through the mud. So, revitalisation must commence with a review of trade union systems of finance and administration. Since when has nepotism been a primary attribute for recruitment? Yet we have been confronted with too many instances of family members comprising significant proportions of full time union staffs.

The Trade Union Royal Commission is a political stitch-up initiated by right-wing conservative Tony Abbott and prosecuted by his minions. However the evidence before the Commission demands a response. Shortcomings in union management cannot be swept under the carpet with this ‘stitch-up’ defence. Union members are not buying it; many have become entirely disaffected; many have abandoned the movement in disgust and just about all of them are sickened by the revelations.

While the union legacy is being trashed Union peak bodies and their branches should not be sitting on their hands waiting for the Royal Commission guillotine to drop; they should be acting immediately on the revelations that are before the Commission and which are not contested; they should be imposing standards of behaviour as a condition of affiliation. If recalcitrant unions are not prepared to adopt the standards then their affiliation should 1 be terminated. Simple as that. The thuggery, chauvinism and abuse that has been brought before the Commission has no place in a modern and decent trade union movement. Some of the abuse levelled at female public servants merely doing their job warrants the immediate dismissal of the perpetrators from office.

Included in the review of management systems should be the affiliation with the ALP. There seems to be a common thread amongst those unions accused of corrupt behaviour and it is their affiliation with the ALP. It is a relationship that may be becoming toxic for both sides. We find some unions affiliating to the ALP based on twice the size of their actual membership in order to maximise their influence within the ALP. Once again, apparently ‘independent’ auditor reports are presented to the ALP to verify membership of affiliating organisations. The corruption starts here, as does a focus on politics over and above a focus on member interests. Thus, in some cases, the affiliation does no favours for the union members nor the ALP. Too many ALP reps in upper houses of parliament have trade union backgrounds. Such experience should not disqualify people from elected office but when a preponderance of reps have such a qualification then questions must be asked. Some of the ALP’s best and worst reps have come from the union movement. Recent factional manoeuvres to remove sitting Senators from winnable seats in favour of trade union hacks is inimical to long term union and party interests.

There is a strong case that union members should be able to ‘opt-in’ for a proportion of their membership dues to go towards affiliation with the Labor Party. Those ‘opt-in’ members should be afforded all the benefits and privileges of full Party membership, hence enhancing rather than limiting trade union involvement in the Party. It is interesting to observe that those unions who are maintaining and in some cases growing their membership are not affiliated to the ALP.

Meanwhile, the ALP seems to be constantly on the back foot defending the latest CFMEU outrage. The CFMEU needs to get its act together; the ACTU needs to insist upon appropriate standards of behaviour and management systems as a condition of affiliation and the ALP ought not be beholden to affiliates who step outside the bounds of decency. Were the ALP and the ACTU to put a stake in the ground and say, “thus far and no further” they would go a long way towards restoring their respective good names and provide a platform for the urgent revitalisation of the union movement.

The beauty of this suggestion for both parties is that it is not easily replicable and will enable them both to set standards that are far superior to anything that exists in private enterprise. They will be enabled to have a behavioural moat around them that cannot be breached. They will occupy the moral high ground. 

Incidentally, can anyone imagine any private enterprise organisation that could withstand the forensic analysis to which these trade unions have been subject? This is not offered as a defence to unacceptable behaviour, merely an observation. Watching one hapless union office manager having her attention drawn to volume eight of the evidence at page 486, duly notated, and being asked: “Is that your signature?”, I wondered whether any private enterprise organisation could withstand this. A 7/11Royal commission? A CBA financial advice Royal Commission? The list is endless. How about a Royal Commission into the pink batts royal commission? Children overboard? Wheat for oil? Intelligence deficiencies that put us into Iraq?


– Michael Johnston, Open Labor NSW