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Issue #1715      January 20, 2016

Royal Commission report

Coward punch on workers’ rights

It was snuck out at the height of the holiday season so it would provoke the least public outrage. The report from the prejudicially named “Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption” capped off an orchestrated witch hunt of the leadership of the organised labour movement launched in 2014 by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott. It lasted 20 months and cost $43 million but that was money well spent in the eyes of the enemies of trade unions and the interests of the working class.

Its recommendations go way beyond mechanisms supposedly designed to prevent a few opportunist “bad apples” from rorting their positions. The proposed changes to the industrial relations regime gut workers’ rights in the workplace and seek to convert every trade union into a yellow union. The report now sits on CEO bookshelves alongside the Productivity Commission’s report on the “Workplace Relations Framework”. If enacted, the impact of these documents on the rights of ordinary Australians would be devastating.

As expected, Turnbull welcomed the report but tried to put a novel spin on it. The inquisition sought to re-invigorate the trade unions, according to the smooth-talking PM. “Does anybody seriously believe that Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberals want stronger unions?” acting opposition spokesperson on industrial relations, Mark Dreyfus, asked. “They don’t. They want weaker unions so they can attack conditions like penalty rates.”

The report forces a moment of truth on Turnbull & Co. They don’t want a “WorkChoices election” of the sort they got in 2007. But expectations from the corporate sector have swelled since those days and they are impatient to lay the killer punches to workers’ rights. They’re not happy that the decision about Sunday penalty rates is to be left to the Fair Work Commission. At the very least, they want a submission from the government recommending a cut to the pay of the country’s lowest wage earners.

Employers pile on pressure

The bosses are feigning disappointment. Heydon’s report didn’t call for a ban on all pattern bargaining whereby trade unions seek to negotiate common terms in enterprise agreements in more than one enterprise. They would like unions to be exposed to “competition” from unions that usually cover other occupations. All in the interests of members, of course! And they want any special role for unions in enterprise bargaining scrubbed from industrial relations legislation. Having achieved so much with the recent anti-worker reports, employers are in no mood to back off.

Still, the “gains” from the Royal Commission need to be converted to reality. This won’t be straight forward. It was a convoluted piece of theatre to arrive at a pre-determined outcome. It denigrated individuals and cast a stain over the trade union movement in order to undermine the legitimacy of trade unionism – all, in the final analysis, to boost profits. That was its ideological thrust. The Labor Party is being pushed to abandon its links to the trade unions; indeed to renounce its own history as a product of the unions.

Heydon claimed that the “revelations” of the Royal Commission were the “small tip of a very large iceberg” and that misconduct in the trade union movement is “widespread and deep-seated.” There was a recommendation for criminal or civil action against 37 individuals, including trade union officials as well as against the AWU and the CFMEU, which was undoubtedly the special target of the Royal Commission.

Echoes of the Cole Commission

But, as Heydon himself points out, “A finding of a Royal Commissioner is an expression of opinion, not a determination of legal rights.” (Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption Report, 2015, Vol 1, [p.139]). For example, Queensland was a special focus of the Commission but only one out of the state’s several hundred trade union officials and organisers was referred for prosecution. The Commission was carefully designed not to drag employers and other big wigs into the spotlight but, despite the glaring class bias of the proceedings, two Queensland corporate executives had to be referred.

Lurid headlines in the Fairfax press about the CFMEU receiving $700,000 from a labour hire company associated with “underworld figure” George Alexis turns out to be the recovery of underpaid wages that were promptly forwarded to the workers involved. Other allegations and police actions have already fallen over. Like the Cole Royal commission before it, the latest witch hunt is long on smear but short on proof and any sense of justice.

The objectives

The latest attacks are means to an end. The attack on penalty rates is the test case of a change in the balance of class forces with other objectives clearly on the minds of the capitalist ruling class.

They want to reconfigure trade union structures into corporate entities in order to wipe democratic processes and open up leaderships to massive civil court actions.

They want a Registered Organisations Commission – essentially an ABCC for the entire trade union movement – and the creation of a boosted Australian Building and Construction Commission to try and crush the CFMEU.

Fines for taking anything but legally constricted action will go through the roof. Heydon recommends they go from $10,600 for individuals to $216,000 and $360,000 for “reckless” actions. Unions will be barred from paying such crushing fines. The current campaign to bankrupt the more miltant trade unions would be switched into hyper-drive.

They want to wipe union representation from superannuation boards and have unfettered access to the funds they control. The fact that industry funds with union representation consistently deliver better outcomes for members is immaterial. They want to get their hands on the workers’ deferred wages for “investment” (speculation). They want to turn members against union leaderships with allegations about “widespread corruption”.

It should be kept in mind that we live in a system based on theft of the fruits of the labour of others. Capitalism, by definition, is corrupt. Some elements in the unions will be infected with this, but organised labour does not infiltrate organised crime; crime seeks to infiltrate organised labour.

Due to capitalism’s very nature, workers historically suffer the consequences of its crises. But the system has arrived at an impasse; there is now very little “boom” in the boom and bust cycle. Disarming the organised working class is thus essential if a widespread austerity program and virtual slavery in the workplace are to be imposed. It has to be said, the bosses have made great advances to this end.

Class collaboration

The ground for this disarming was laid by the Hawke-Keating government and its Prices and Incomes Accord. Briefly, the Accord, between the ACTU and the Labor government, provided the means of locking the unions into the government’s economic policy.

It involved a commitment to cooperate with employers, to replace struggle with “consensus”, and to severely restrict unions’ rights to make claims on behalf of their members.

Workers were committed to help the interests of “all Australians”, which turned out to mean their employers. It was class collaboration on the phoney basis of “common interests” between all people, both the tiny group of exploiters and the masses of exploited.

It led to unions becoming party to an agreement, for the first time in Australian history, by which they applied for a reduction in the purchasing power of wages and salaries on the false notion of job creation.

The then ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty stated in the Australian Financial Review in 1985 that employers were “just lucky that they have a government and unions prepared to accept the need for profits, accept the need for growth … on the basis of money being put in the hands of the employer.”

Kelty, along with his then ACTU sidekicks Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson are now giving advice to the Labor Party on the ways and means of distancing itself from the unions.

Inherent in capitalism

Exploitation and crises are inherent in the operation of capitalism. It is the economic and political system which is responsible for the present crisis.

As long as governments shore up capitalism, no one particular government, irrespective of superficial points of difference, will be able to put an end to the present, deep crisis.

What we are witnessing now is a sharpening of the constant struggle against the incessant attempts of employers to reduce the share of profits going to the workers in the form of wages.

Basis of unity

In the face of such a threat, there is an urgent need for left and progressive unity on policies of struggle for the rights and needs of working people. It is time to go back to basics. Some principles toward this fundamental goal of unity are:

Organisations involved must be approached on the basis of equality, mutual respect and honesty;

There must be consultation at each step of the process to ensure agreement on policies and tactics;

There has to be adherence to decisions made and the carrying through of decisions;

An atmosphere needs to be created in which the results of decisions and steps taken can be frankly discussed and evaluated.

The road to unity, the creation of class conscious trade unionism and solidarity will be a long and complicated one but the first steps must be taken. The alternative path of capitulation leads to fascism.

Next article – Editorial – Return of the co-payment

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