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Issue #1552      20 June 2012


Unions and corporations law

Kathy Jackson’s appearance at a recent dinner of the HR Nicholls Society was an unedifying spectacle. The national secretary of the Health Services Union seemed neither uncomfortable nor out of place chatting with such vicious opponents of the trade union movement as Peter Reith – Howard’s industrial relations minister at the time of the Patrick dispute. She conceded many people view her hosts as sworn enemy of workers’ interests and she went to some trouble to distance herself from their free market fanaticism in her speech. But the HR Nicholls Society would have welcomed her words, mild rebukes and all, for the valuable contribution she made on themes described as “common ground”.

Ms Jackson’s suggestion that unions should be bought under corporations law and subject to “ASIC-type” scrutiny spread like wild fire in the monopoly media. The bosses smell blood. The press is full of commentary about the declining influence of the union movement and the words form the HSU official were received warmly. Jackson said the HSU crisis could be an opportunity for trade unions to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves and that would be the wish of every progressive person when assessing the whole HSU east debacle. But the idea that these objectives could be achieved by tightening the grip of the capitalist state on workers’ main weapon for defence in the class struggle should be dismissed straight away.

In her speech Ms Jackson noted that unions have had a unique place in Australian society and law. That “special place” was won in grim battles for survival; a concession from the country’s ruling class following historic struggles around the turn of the last century. A wag once commented that if it weren’t for Australia’s system of arbitration, bosses and workers would have to fight it out in a figurative paddock with pick handles and the workers would win!

Big business was never happy with this “special place” and has tried ever since to weaken unions ideologically and to bring them into the main arena of the corporations law where they could be wiped out. That is big business’ special domain where they have the expertise to conceal their own dirty dealings and maintain their privileges and power. The use of sections 45D and E of the Trade Practices Act in recent times is an indication of how the big end of town would like to wage the class struggle.

The Wages and Incomes Accord of the 1980s helped foster the mentality that unions were simply another “stakeholder”, a “third party” or even “rent taker” sitting down at the table with the boss. The era of enterprise bargaining has cemented the idea. It was reported recently that there are more than 30 “bargaining agents” lining up to represent workers at the Olympic Dam uranium, gold and copper mine in South Australia. The Australian Workers Union is just one of them. Needless to say, non-union and individual contracts are high on the agenda.

The idea that unions are the workers in an industry organising themselves and electing representatives has been blurred by ideologues serving the capitalists. It has been lost on some trade union leaderships including the ones noted by Kathy Jackson who maintain “war chests” filled with members’ funds to fight off any challenge from the rank and file – a self-perpetuating and self-serving bureaucracy. She also said the worst offenders are those affiliated to the Australian Labor Party and it is this observation that provides a clue for truly effective reform of trade union “governance”.

During much of Australia’s modern history, unions have been looked upon as a career pathway by aspiring Labor politicians. The degeneration accelerated when it became possible to go straight from university graduation to a staffer position with an ALP MP or researcher in a union office and upwards to the leadership of the organisation without ever having worked in the relevant industry. It is unlikely that the ACTU’s current review of union management will suggest such a thing but key to cleaning out the corrupt factional warlords is to insist on unions being independent of any political party.

Next article – Communities stand against coal greed

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