In recent weeks, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption has shifted its focus to the Australian Workers Union (AWU). In particular they have been looking at the period when Labor Party leader Bill Shorten was secretary of the union.
Mainstream media outlets have exposed deals whereby the AWU received hundreds of thousands of dollars from employers along with lists of employees to artificially bloat membership rolls. A bigger paper membership gives the union officials more influence in the Labor Party.
In exchange, the AWU signed off on workplace agreements that were stacked in favour of the bosses. One agreement at the East Link project in Melbourne saved the construction company an estimated $100 million. Several other similarly dodgy deals have also been exposed.
Previously the Commission’s main focus was on trumped up allegations of unlawfulness within the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union (CFMEU). While much less than in the past, the CFMEU has engaged in types of industrial action that is deemed illegal under the Labor-introduced Fair Work Act.
Employer groups had hoped that the Commission would isolate and smear the CFMEU therefore discrediting the broader union movement and paving the way for anti-worker counter-reforms in the future.
However, as one employer pointed out, Australian workers “like it when someone gives the two-fingered salute to the boss, particularly if you are being seen to do it to protect workers.” Far more effective than highlighting unions that actually fight for their members is to focus on the shady deals and the opportunist ambitions of the right-wing pro-Labor union officialdom.
Coinciding with the Commission’s focus on the AWU has been increased media coverage of the rotten role played by the leaders of another right-wing pro-Labor union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). Stories have focused on their recent SDA deal with Coles that undercuts Award entitlements and former SDA leader Joe de Bruyn’s opposition to equal marriage rights.
While Abbott has feigned concern about workers being ripped off by corrupt union officials, the truth is he would like nothing more than to wind back wages and conditions so that his big business backers could increase their profits. His main focus now however is to use the Commission to undermine Labor and the Labor-aligned unions that help the party during election campaigns. To this end he is having some success.
While socialists oppose the Royal Commission and its anti-worker aims, we offer no support to the leaders of yellow unions like the SDA and AWU. Workers deserve unions that fight for their interests not unions that do sweetheart deals with bosses. We campaign for unions to break with the Labor Party and to take on a fighting and democratic approach so that they are capable of winning real gains.
All union officials should be elected and subject to the right of immediate recall by members. No official should be paid more than the members they represent or receive special privileges. Financial records should be open to members for inspection.
The adoption of policies like these would not only better equip our unions but they would undermine the ability of anti-worker governments to attack the movement. As well as driving the corrupt pro-Labor union leaders out of our movement we need to build a new party that fights for decent living standards and for an economic alternative to the profit-driven capitalist system.
By Ben Convey