Scandal and controversy continue to surround the Health Services Union (HSU) and its former National Secretary, now MP for Dobell, Craig Thomson. His speech to Parliament in late May went no way towards convincing anyone of his innocence. It did however shine more light on Thomson’s equally rotten accusers.
Thomson allegedly “misused” up to $500,000 of union money – including to pay for prostitutes and to fund his election campaign in 2007. Between 2002 and 2007 he was the National Secretary of the HSU. The recently completed Fair Work Australia (FWA) report into the issue alleges 156 breaches of the Fair Work Act. At the time of writing there were two ongoing police investigations and a further seven pending court cases and inquiries by other bodies into these matters.
Kathy Jackson, who until recently was the National Secretary of the HSU, made the allegations against Thomson during a bitter battle between two sides of a split in the Right faction of the Victorian ALP. The battle took place in 2008/09 over pre-selection for a seat in State Parliament and control of the union. Jackson lost the first battle but continued the war, taking the allegations to FWA and the courts.
Jackson herself was removed from her position last month when the Federal Court appointed administrators to run the union. As National Secretary he was reported to be receiving a salary of $270,000 a year. She drove a union funded luxury Volvo SUV and lives in a $2 million ‘compound’ in the affluent Melbourne suburb of Balwyn. As part of her role Jackson sat on the boards of a number of organisations, receiving “director’s fees” on top of her union salary and allowances.
Jackson is no champion of the mostly low-paid workers that the HSU represents. Instead she lives a life of extreme privilege far removed from the experience of those who fund her wages. Despite Jackson’s claims to stand for transparency and accountability, her actions are solely aimed at maintaining her own privilege and power.
Various other political figures and groups have waded into the fray to try and take advantage of the situation for their own benefit. Most prominently, the Liberal Party have been engaged in near-daily manoeuvres to try and force Thomson out of the Parliament. Given the tight numbers at a Federal level they are hoping to bring down the Gillard Government and claw their way into power over the political carcass of Craig Thomson.
As more sordid details come to light, and the Machiavellian manoeuvres continue, the lessons for HSU members and workers more generally are already clear. The Craig Thomson affair is really a result of rotten pro-ALP politics that have infected the trade union movement.
Currently most of the ‘leaders’ of the movement are politically bankrupt ALP careerists who treat the unions as their own personal fiefdoms. Instead we need democratically elected, recallable and accountable leaders without special privileges. Every union official should live on no more than the wage of a skilled worker. Pay rises should be linked to what they are delivering for their members.
A genuinely democratic and fighting trade union leadership would have to stand firmly for an economic and political alternative to the two major parties of big business. To do this a complete break from the ALP, its factional wars, and its dead end politics is required.
By Kirk Leonard