An anti-democratic union busting bill passed parliament’s lower house on August 1. The government’s ‘Ensuring Integrity’ bill is something from an authoritarian regime’s law book and the union movement must mobilise to stop it.
First introduced in 2017 the Ensuring Integrity bill did not manage to pass the senate and become law during the Turnbull government.
Now the re-elected the Morrison government is trying again. Facing a smaller senate crossbench of right-wingers, it looks likely the bill will be voted into law in October.
The Australian Financial Review honestly labelled it an “anti CFMEU law” referring to the construction workers union, one of the few unions that have won decent pay rises in recent years. Other effective unions will also be targeted if the government succeeds.
Among the extraordinary powers in the bill are abilities to ban and jail elected union officials, to appoint outside ‘administrators’ and even to de-register unions entirely. Bosses want to be able to herd workers into tame cat unions that show no resistance, or worse, to de-unionise sectors completely.
Union mergers democratically voted for by members could also be easily blocked. Under the proposed law court orders can be made to force unions do to things like hold elections or settle industrial disputes.
Government ministers, the anti-union “Registered Organisation Commission”, and otherwise “interested persons” like bosses would all be able to pursue these actions in the courts.
Penalties for unions, their members and officials far exceed those that face company directors or capitalists for genuine crimes.
Even when corporations do break the law, like the big banks charging dead people or bosses who steal wages, the ‘regulators’ often let them go. In modern Australian capitalism it’s one law for the rich and another for everyone else.
A union research paper found that the government’s bill is similar to the anti-trade union laws introduced in 1943 by the Vargas dictatorship in Brazil. It also breaches international union conventions that Australia is signatory too.
Even the parliamentary committee on human rights, dominated by government MPs, was forced to concede the law breaches human rights. It didn’t stop them voting for the bill though.
Trade unions are democratic organisations that workers use to defend their collective interests against bosses in the workplace. Unions belong to their members. There are no legitimate grounds for the government or state institutions to control them.
But bosses and their representatives hate unions because they threaten profits when they fight for a greater share of the wealth produced by workers’ labour. Profits come from the effort workers put into productive processes. Bosses’ profits are essentially ‘unpaid’ or ‘stolen’ wages.
Australia already has some of the most repressive anti-trade union laws of the advanced capitalist countries. Partly that’s why Australia hasn’t had a recession since 1992. Bosses have kept profits high by weakening unions, increasing casualisation and keeping wages low.
In effect workers have suffered and paid for all of the economic shocks produced by capitalism in the last three decades while bosses go on raking in profits and living the high life. It’s extremely important that this bill is defeated through national mass mobilisation of trade unions and the wider community.
There are successful examples of this in our history like the 1969 strikes against the anti-union penal powers.
Prime minister Scott Morrison has a review of “industrial relations” pending. The response from unions to the “Ensuring Integrity” bill will influence how Morrison proceeds. Weakness will invite aggression.
Disappointingly the Australian Council of Trade Unions leadership have not outlined any real plan to fight this serious attack. They are still disoriented and disarmed after the spectacular failure of their “Change the Rules” campaign to unseat the coalition and elect Labor.
An effective challenge to the Morrison governments union busting plans needs to start with mass delegates meetings to explain what is at stake and send the information back to the workplaces.
From those meetings a plan can be ratified and initiated for an escalating campaign of industrial action and strikes, up to and including a 24-hour national stop work.
This kind of disruption to profit-making would allow working class people to feel their collective strength. It would put the bosses under enormous pressure and shake the government and the bosses who back them.
We can beat this bill and turn the tide on union busting. The bosses fear it. But to win a serious all-out fightback is required.
By Kirk Leonard