AUSTRALIA’S Industrial Relations Minister has accused the construction union CFMMEU of an ‘extraordinarily high standard of unlawful activity’ as the Morrison government moves to reintroduce its union-busting bill.
This bill would prevent big union mergers, allow the federal court to deregister a union that breaks the law and ban officials like Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) leader John Setka, for ‘misconduct’.
The CFMMEU is renowned for challenging the anti-union laws, with a total of about $16 million worth of fines historically and 70 union officials currently before the courts over 750 suspected offences.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter last Thursday called the behaviour of the CFMMEU ‘unacceptable,’ adding: ‘The history of that union is just astonishingly unlawful.’
He went on: ‘Overwhelmingly, unions do the right thing but there are some rogue elements of some unions which, particularly in sensitive industries such as construction, behave in a way that is unlawful, disruptive and ultimately massively disadvantages the taxpayer.
‘We wouldn’t accept those standards in corporate Australia, why should we be accepting them for registered organisations and unions?’
After failing in 2017, the Ensuring Integrity Bill allows the Morrison government to interfere with union affairs, replete with powers to shut down organisations and sack their appointed leaders.
The Liberal national government delivered on prime minister Scott Morrison’s post-election promise to crack down on trade unions, when it reintroduced the Ensuring Integrity Bill into the lower house of parliament last Thursday.
Having stalled last year with a lack of crossbench support in the Senate, after its initial introduction in 2017, the Ensuring Integrity Bill provides government and other parties with enhanced powers to not only meddle in union affairs, but get leaders sacked and shut down worker organisations as well.
Newly-incumbent minister Porter said the ‘integrity’ laws are needed so the government can deregister a union like the CFMMEU over its ‘extraordinarily high standard of unlawful activity’.
Deregistering the CFMMEU is a threat that Morrison made last September soon after he took office.
The union is coming under state attack through a ‘scandal’ around comments made by and charges laid against CFMMEU Victorian secretary John Setka.
A concerted attack on workers
‘The Ensuring Integrity Bill would give the minister, employers, or any other party with a sufficient interest the power to intervene in the running and work of unions, disqualify people from union leadership, block union mergers and deregister unions,’ said ACTU (Australian Council of Trades Unions) president Michele O’Neil.
The legislation ‘adds to what is already a highly regulated union movement and goes further than any other western democracy in interfering in democratic workers’ organisations’, she told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
She explained that workers’ rights to organise and run their own unions are internationally recognised, and just like the free press, a free trade union movement is essential to keep checks on ‘the powerful’.
As far as O’Neil is concerned, the Morrison government should be turning its attention towards low wage growth and halting cutting penalty rates.
However, instead of looking after working people, the government is increasing attacks upon them and stripping away their rights.
‘Every single worker benefits from the work of unions,’ O’Neil added. ‘Attacking unions is another way of attacking every worker’s rights.’
The ‘integrity’ anti-union law
Schedule 1 of the Ensuring Integrity Bill 2019 amends the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 (the Act), so that the circumstances in which a person can be automatically disqualified from holding a position of office are broader.
And if they don’t vacate, it’ll be a criminal offence.
These provisions include a ‘fit and proper’ test as grounds for disqualification and the changes also provide for the minister, the Registered Organisations Commissioner or ‘a person with sufficient interest’ to apply to the Federal Court for an order to disqualify a person from holding office.
According to the bill’s explanatory memorandum, ‘sufficient interest’ has been judicially interpreted as an ‘interest beyond that of an ordinary person and includes those whose rights, interests or legitimate expectations would be affected by the decision’ – perhaps an employer.
Schedule 2 amends the Act, so as to ‘streamline’ the cancellation of union registrations by the Federal Court.
New section 28 provides that the minister, the commissioner or that person with a sufficient interest can apply with the court to see a union deregistered.
And it also provides that these parties can apply for ‘alternative orders’ that intrude on the way unions run internally.
These orders include disqualification of certain officers, exclusion of certain members and the ‘suspension of right, privilege and capacity’.
Schedule 3 expands the circumstances in which parties can apply to the court so an administrative scheme can be imposed on a union.
As the ACTU has pointed out this is much broader than similar provisions that deal with corporations and it’s designed to punish rather than assist.
And the final schedule of the union-busting bill makes amendments in regard to unions amalgamating, which, as the ACTU put it, ‘allows for unprecedented political and industry interference in the democratic operation of industrial organisations.’
The mounting restrictions around strike actions include prohibiting them being conducted during an ‘enterprise agreement’, full disclosure of the nature and timing of actions, a prohibition on sympathy strikes, limits on strikers’ speech, and the authority to prohibit actions affecting public services.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus has stated that she had no problem with workers breaking laws which are ‘unjust’.
And McManus has also made clear that current industrial laws and regulations are set up to benefit employers.
Industrial action in Australia is at the lowest it has been during the post-war era, with strikes down by 95% since the 1970s.
And it’s been suggested that the lack of work stoppages has led to extremely slow wage growth. This decade has seen the slowest growth since the last world war.
The continuing assault
Scott Morrison announced last week that his government is also launching a review of Australian industrial laws, which will be headed by minister Porter, whose big business-focused inquiry will result in further legislation that erodes workers’ rights.
During his election campaign Morrison insisted his government had no plans to reduce workers’ rights.
But O’Neil warned: ‘Now we see the truth, he has called on business to deliver his minister a wish list and has dusted off previously failed legislation to attack unions.’
- Up to two thousand workers across Australia are on strike for up to three days this week to protect their jobs from automation and the outsourcing of labour.
About 600 Wharfies for DP World Australia (DPWA) in Sydney and hundreds more in Fremantle will walk off the job today for 48 hours.
They will join about 600 workers in Melbourne who struck from Wednesday for 96 hours. About 300 workers in Brisbane downed tools on Monday, taking the nationwide number to about 1,800.
The dockworkers are also protesting against the loss of conditions in their wage agreement and to protect job cuts related to automation and the outsourcing of labour.
‘We will not roll over and accept an unfair agreement, we won’t accept unilateral attacks on workplace rights and conditions, and we won’t stand by while outsourcing and automation are used to axe quality jobs,’ docks union MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith said.
‘We are fully committed to reaching an agreement as quickly as possible, however we will not sell our conditions, compromise our core claims, or undermine industry standards to do it.’