Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Union corruption inquiry - what's it really for?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's announcement of a Royal Commission to investigate corruption in the union movement is hardly surprising. He can't very well legislate to bring down unions in the way the Howard Government's Work Choices was designed to do, so instead he's done something even more potent. The frame for discussion whenever unions or union officials is mentioned is that fundamentally both are corrupt and they have to prove that they are not. This is probably politically more effective than resurrecting the "dead, buried and cremated" Work Choices legislation.

As a former union official, I know the effort, dedication, sacrifice and commitment that I brought to my work. I also saw it in those around me. I didn't see corruption and believe that I would have stood up if I had. I hope so - I was never confronted with that situation, so it's hypothetical anyway.

Today I agreed with Tony Abbott when he said: ""Honest workers and honest unionists should not be ripped off by corrupt officials and honest businesses should be able to go about their work without fear of intimidation, corruption (and) standover tactics."

Listening to union leaders and Labor parliamentarians respond to news of the Royal Commission is less than inspiring; to me, they sound defensive. The only possible answer is to say "Yes! bring on the Royal Commission. We are confident about our governance. If you do find corruption then we'll say thank you because we are not corrupt. Fundamentally, we are good people doing noble work, ensuring workers have a voice." I suppose it's hard to answer that way when you know that there's an agenda to destroy you and the organisations of which you are a custodian.

The practical problem arising from the Royal Commission is the cost of being involved. There won't be financial assistance for unions required to give evidence, surrender records and be represented. These costs will come from members' dues as members' dues are the main income for most unions. While unions are busy complying with the directions of the Royal Commission they'll be stretched thin and distracted from the business of representing members, negotiating agreements, enforcing agreements and so on. Eventually, the whole thing makes them look self-interested.

It's also interesting to hear the Government rhetoric about breaches of trust and officials inappropriately using money given to them by the people they represent. Goodness me, but that's how I describe Liberal parliamentarians going to social events like friends' weddings and claiming tax payer funds in the form of travel allowance to cover their costs. I can only hear tumbleweeds when this is mentioned. I doubt we'll ever hear Prime Minister Abbott say that honest tax payers and honest citizens should not be ripped off by corrupt parliamentarians using funds to attend social events - especially if they're on his side of the House.

The worst thing is that corruption within the union movement has the ability to cause deep harm to people who are vulnerable. When Malcolm Turnbull used the term "workers" on ABC TV's Q and A last night, it sat very uncomfortably - they are not the party of the workers.  Unions are important in a just (Capitalist) society.

If I was leader of the union movement at the moment, I'd be organising two things: firstly, a coordinated plan to share the burden of the Royal Commission and secondly, buying SPC Ardmona at Shepparton and establishing it with workers as the shareholders (ie a cooperative). The first is practical and is probably happening; the second would be both brilliant PR and have a practical effect, keeping employment and opportunity in a regional town which relies on fruit growing and canning as the mainstay of its economy. It would be pretty hard to think unions are evil when they're the only ones who've done anything to save jobs.

I have a problem with governments handing gifts of money to large, overseas owned companies (in this case Coca-Cola Amatil). I don't think it should happen. However, if there's a flood of people onto the dole queue, then the $25 million sought by Coke will soon be overshadowed by the welfare bill, social costs and flow-on effects to other businesses in the region.

I'm not leader of the union movement, so I'll have to wait and see along with the rest of you. I'd be surprised if these these ideas are not being considered. In the meantime, I have changed the way I describe my past experience. I will now be describing myself as a "community campaign leader" as I see no benefit in carrying around the smelly baggage I've been lumped with as a former union official.


  1. The Queensland government has gone on the attack against unions, particularly the public service union. Unions have to have a formal postal ballot of members to be allowed to spend more than $10,000 on anything political. For the public service union, where the government is the employer, pretty much any campaigning for workers meets the definition. So they can't quickly respond to anything the government does, such as legislating public servant's rights away.
    The union set up a separate fund just before the law kicked in, after polling their members. The government is frothing, and using spending member's money without them having a say as their rationale for an investigation.
    It's making me angry just typing this.

  2. That's disgraceful! It intrigues me that conservatives everywhere gloat about the decline in union membership and power and then spent their lives limiting union power and influence. Those two ideas don't go together. I suppose we have Craig Thomson and a few others to thank for providing the atmosphere for people generally to be suspicious about the integrity of the people who are custodians of the various unions. Public sector unions are always in a special position because of the fact the employer they deal with is the government of the day. It's a shame that circumstances conspire to have one outcome - working people get screwed.