A series of articles and stories in Fairfax newspapers and on ABC TV last month was part of a co-ordinated assault on the most unionised section of Australian workers – those working in the commercial construction industry on the East Coast. Within days the Abbott government announced a Royal Commission into alleged corruption in five unions.
It was a level of bias not normally seen in these media outlets. For example, the allegedly neutral 7.30 Report used the notorious anti-union hatchet man Nigel Hadgkiss as their ‘expert’ opinion in one of the stories on ‘CFMEU corruption’.
In the 1920s Trotsky commented that the London Times newspaper told the truth nine times out of ten, the better to lie on the crucial occasion when it was vital for the interests of the capitalists. The campaign probably had more impact precisely because it wasn’t from the distrusted Murdoch press in the first instance.
The Socialist Party oppose corruption in the labour movement. We stand for the election of all union officials and their wages to be no higher than the members they represent. The main ‘waste’ in the unions comes not from corruption but in handing over millions every year to the Labor Party – a party that started privatisation, deregulation and a neo-liberal direction over three decades ago.
However no thinking worker can take seriously the hypocritical denunciation of union corruption by the mass media. The vast majority of the accusations have already been investigated by the police and no charges were laid – because no evidence was found. The few examples with any legs were minor – such as one organiser getting work done on his home by a builder.
The mass media turns a blind eye to the vastly larger problem of corporate corruption. For example John Holland bribing Iraqi officials millions of dollars to win contracts, Lend Lease receiving New York’s record fine for a business or Coalition parties receiving $430,000 in rent from Walton Construction last year, and then going silent when the same company went into liquidation owing $2.9 million to its workers.
Unions are attacked on the front pages for alleged violence and intimidation with little evidence provided, let alone any convictions. Yet when Grocon’s negligence leads to the death of three pedestrians outside a Melbourne building site last year, we see a massive cover-up and media blackout.
So what’s really behind this media assault on the construction unions and the subsequent Royal Commission? It is a desire by big business to drive down the wages and conditions of Australian workers.
As we face a jobs crisis and economic uncertainty in the coming years the ruling class know they will meet resistance from workers. The bosses and government see the construction unions as the backbone of the trade union movement. They hope the recent media campaign will soften up the public in preparation for massive fines, arrests and even the deregistration (effectively banning) of more effective unions.
It is important that the union movement prepare for the turbulent times ahead through proper political discussion and debate within its ranks. A strategy to fight Abbott’s attacks, both politically and industrially, should be agreed with a focus on mass action. The union movement should also seek to make alliances with all those fighting right-wing governments.
Rather than waste time and money trying to influence the Labor Party, unions should combine with other interested forces to open up discussion on the need for a new political voice for workers in Australia.
The long boom is coming to an end. Capitalism demands a radical restructure of wages and conditions. Smashing the construction unions is key to this agenda. In this sense the fight to defend the construction unions, and to protect and improve wages and conditions, is integrally linked to the need to replace capitalism with a democratic socialist future.
By Stephen Jolly