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Issue #1660      October 15, 2014

Union witch-hunt extended

The Abbott government has extended the term of the Royal Commission into trade unions until the end of 2015, bringing the cost to taxpayers of this political witch-hunt to a whopping $61 million. Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon will issue an interim report by the end of 2014. In a letter to Attorney-General George Brandis, Heydon claimed: “The inquiry thus far has revealed evidence of criminal conduct which includes widespread instances of physical and verbal violence, cartel conduct, secondary boycotts, contempt of court and other institutional orders and the encouragement of others to commit these contempts.”

The 12-month extension is just as political as the rest of the inquiry. It is aimed at providing a constant flow of anti-union material for the whole of 2015, a year in which Queensland and NSW hold state elections. The final report looks set to be released early 2016, in the lead-up to the federal elections.

So far the public hearings have fed the media with a constant flow of accusations including credit card misuse, union corruption, intimidation, slush funds, violence and links with organised crime.

Needless to say, the dangerous reality of working on construction sites, the high death toll, serious injuries, and failure to pay workers their legal entitlements are not being investigated.

Political aims

A Royal Commission is not needed to investigate criminal activities by individuals. It gives the impression that such activity by trade unionists is endemic and systemic and hurts the reputation of the overwhelming majority of highly committed and hard working union officials. It is the job of police to investigate criminal activity and there are already adequate laws to do this.

The government’s real aims are political. They include:

  • Criminalising legitimate trade union activity – e.g. legitimate action taken to pressure employers when bargaining is treated as “coercion” or “bullying”
  • Destroying the reputation of the trade union movement in the eyes of members and other workers and undermining trust between workers and union officials
  • Providing a justification for the next round of savage anti-union laws and to strengthen the draconian powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to police and hound workers and trade unions in the industry
  • Placing tighter controls on trade union funds such as banning or requiring membership ballots before spending money on donations, political activity, etc.
  • Damaging the Labor Party, claiming that it is controlled by trade unions
  • Deregistering the Construction division of the CFMEU and seize its assets
  • Reducing or removing trade union representation on industry superannuation funds to give absolute control to private financial institutions.

Attack on industry super funds

The question of who governs superannuation funds is an important one for workers. The finance sector has been lobbying the government for some time so that it can get complete control of the industry funds that were set up by trade unions. The governing boards make important decisions about the types of investments and which investment houses will handle the investments. They also make decisions as fees and member services, which insurance company is engaged, etc.

Cbus, which has $27 billion in members’ funds, has been under attack in the Commission for an alleged breach of privacy – data about members in a particular workplace being given to the CFMEU. The largest industry fund is Australian Super with $78 billion in assets and two million members.

At present, the boards have equal trade union and employer representation with an agreed independent chair. The lobbying by financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, investment houses) for control appears to have been effective.

PM Abbott has got stuck into industry super funds worth $250 billion for creating a “gravy train” for union officials who sit on their boards – a wild, unsubstantiated assertion to damage the funds and union representatives.

In 2005, the Howard government introduced “choice” of superannuation funds, but workers stuck with their industry funds and failed to cross over to the private retail funds as hoped by Howard. “This change is expected to provide employees with a greater sense of ownership over their retirement savings,” the government claimed. He didn’t explain how losing their elected representatives gave them “a greater sense of ownership”!

The Coalition is looking at a three-way split to dilute the role of unions and provide more room for “independent” directors from the finance sector. This proposition has nothing to do with performance; the not-for-profit industry funds with their lower fees consistently outperform the retail funds. The aim is to give the retail funds and finance sector control of these funds so that they can direct investments and benefits in a manner that enhances their interests.

After all, the aim of the private retail funds is to make profits, investing members’ savings is the vehicle for profit-making. That is why the industry funds outperform the retail ones.

Toll on families

The Commission is already making a mark in blackening the name of the CFMEU and stereotyping CFMEU members and officials as criminals and corrupt. They are facing incredible pressures, including those who have not appeared before the Commission. It has damaged relationships and children have come under attack at school because a parent works for the CFMEU.

A climate of fear is being created. The human toll of innocent, hard working unionists is mounting. They have no means of clearing their names or that of the union.

Employers given immunity

In 1980, then PM Malcolm Fraser set up a Royal Commission into the activities of the Painters and Dockers Union, amidst similar claims of violence, thuggery and criminal conduct. John Howard was Treasurer at the time and did not hide the Coalition’s agenda. The aim was to use the Commission’s revelations to destroy the reputation of the whole trade union movement and to hurt the Labor Party with its strong association with trade unions. It would also provide an excuse for anti-union legislation. Fraser was thrown out in the 1983 elections. Hopefully, the same fate awaits Abbott in 2016.

Royal Commissioner Frank Costigan was no Liberal Party stooge and looked into the evidence a little too deeply for the government’s liking. His investigations into the activities of the Painters and Dockers led him to organised crime in general, which was linked to massive money laundering and tax evasion rackets, including the “Bottom of the Harbour” scams. Some very big names, a number with connections to the Liberal Party, in fact some of the Party’s biggest donors, surfaced as the inquiry went well beyond union corruption claims.

The Commission was quietly closed down but Howard was forced to bring in retrospective legislation to reform the tax system.

This time round, pursuing similar anti-union objectives, the Abbott government is not making the same mistake. The terms of reference exclude investigation into employer corruption, criminal and other activities.

Act now

The Royal Commission into trade unions should be shut down and the money redirected to socially useful purposes. It is important to lobby and convince as many cross-bench Senators and Labor Senators and MPs as possible to oppose Abbott’s ABCC legislation and to have the existing legislation repealed.

It requires a strong and militant trade union movement working with the community to defeat the Abbott government’s attack on unions and its austerity measures.

Next article – Editorial – Commercialisation agenda on ABC

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