Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Royal Commission targets unions

Reading Time: 3 minutes

While big business corruption and criminality is mostly ignored, the Abbott government has decided to set up a Royal Commission targeting trade union governance. This Royal Commission, like the others before it, will be used as a political weapon by the Liberals to undermine union influence and the rights of workers.

By Kirk Leonard, Socialist Party

Due to report by the end of December, the Commission is charged with looking into allegations of corruption within trade unions. Five unions in particular are to be targeted including the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union (CFMEU), the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the Australian Workers Union (AWU), the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU), and the Health Services Union (HSU). The Commission has a vast range of powers and wide scope for investigation.

Some recent scandals involving union officials have been used to justify the Commission, particularly the scandal around the former Labor MP, and leader of the HSU, Craig Thompson. Abbott is hoping that the Commission will both damage the Labor Party and discredit trade unionism as a general concept.

The Liberal Party understands that unions are potentially the most powerful threat to his agenda of cuts and austerity. The memory of the union mobilisation that booted out the Howard Liberal Government in 2007 is still fresh in their minds. They want to try and cut across any movement the unions may launch as they plan to ‘end the age of entitlement’.

While focusing on the actions of a few rogue union officials, the real corruption in industry is swept under the carpet. For example the construction giants Leighton Holdings and Lend Lease have had massive corruption scandals exposed in recent years involving bribery and defrauding taxpayers. Senior Liberals have been shown to have dodgy links to big businesses yet no Royal Commission has been announced to investigate these affairs.

Unfortunately the politics of the current batch of trade union leaders have opened the way for the Liberal’s manoeuvre. For the most part the leaderships of the trade unions in Australia are linked to the Labor Party. Labor has shifted significantly to the right in recent decades adopting economic policies indistinguishable form the Liberals.

This shift has been reflected in the unions resulting in many leaderships refusing to put up a fight against job losses and attacks on conditions. We even have the example of former union leaders like Paul Howes and Martin Ferguson claiming that workers get paid too much!

Side by side with this shift to the right we now see many unions run in a top down fashion without proper membership involvement. The best way to combat corruption in the unions is for the membership to be active and engaged. People are more likely to be active if they can see unions achieving things. Moribund and inactive unions are ripe for corruption.

Socialists argue for fighting and democratic unions with checks on union officials. For example all officials should be elected and subject to the right of immediate recall by the members. No official should be paid more than the wage of the members they represent and they should not receive any special privileges. All financial records, accounts and agreements should be open to members for inspection.

Democratic reforms such as this go hand in hand with building fighting unions. Trade unions need to break from the Labor Party – a party that has close links to big business and is steeped in dodgy dealings. Instead we need to fight against cuts and for an economic alternative to the profit driven system.

A new political direction for the unions would not only help stamp out corruption but it would also put the movement back on track to win real gains for working people and stop the trend towards wealth inequality.


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