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Issue #1886      September 18, 2019

Editorial

“Rule of law” for some

If only the Guardian Press Fund had a dollar for every time the Morrison Coalition government banged on about the “rule of law”. The “rule of law” is constantly bandied about as the excuse for the steady flow of union-bashing legislation and endless attacks on trade unions for breaching these bad laws. The Heydon Royal Commission in 2015 was set up by the Coalition to demonise trade unions in the eyes of workers and the public as a whole. It was nothing short of a political witch-hunt that also roped in former Labor leaders Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten. The hearings were dominated by rather tenuous, to say the least, claims linking the trade union movement to all manner of criminal activity which the corporate media blasted on a daily basis never missing the opportunity for a little embellishment.

The main target of union vilification was the building and construction union, the CFMEU. This set the scene for two bills that are currently before Parliament awaiting the outcomes of two Senate Inquiries. They are the Ensuring Integrity and Proper Uses of Worker Benefits bills.

The main focus of the anti-union legislation dating back to the Howard era of the early 2000s has been on such things as:

  • attacking trade union rights, including right to withdraw labour
  • slashing past gains
  • decentralising the fixation of wages and working conditions
  • eroding trade union density and representation
  • bankrupting trade unions.

These latest bills represent some more recent trends of increasing interference in the running of trade unions, and mandatory penal provisions including jail sentences. They also overrule democratic rights of union members and the ability of officials to do their job.

The Ensuring Integrity Bill contains extensive provisions for the disqualification of union officials from holding office and the deregistration of a union or branch of a union. It also introduces a “public interest test” for the amalgamation of (registered) trade unions. (See Guardian #1875, 03-07-2019, “Affront to democracy”)

The Proper Uses of Worker Benefits Bill is also a complete misnomer. A number of unions, such as in the construction industry, where redundancy is a common feature as work is highly casualised and companies often go belly up have set up worker benefits funds to protect workers’ entitlements. Participant employers contribute a weekly amount for each employee to the fund. The fund’s board has equal numbers of union and employer representatives and an independent chair. These funds provide a number of benefits for workers as well as contributing to redundancy payments to tide workers over until the next job.

The government wants to make the boards “independent” and put them on the same footing as corporate boards, but accountable to the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) under the Fair Work Laws. This is the body that infamously, and it seems unjustifiably, raided the Australian Workers Union offices. Apart from giving the ROC even more powers, the aim is to hand the finances of these funds over to the banks and insurance companies. and the private vocational education companies that rorted tax payers for millions of dollars!

Andrew Wallace, Coalition MP from Queensland, in speaking enthusiastically in favour of the bill, said, “When it comes to bodies like banks, credit unions and super funds, we oversee them with APRA, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. We require them to have independent directors, we require them to meet strict reporting standards and to keep written policies, and we require them to act prudently to protect their members’ or customers’ interests.”

If that was the “rule of law” governing the financial sector and private vocational education, then union members are hardly likely to vote for it. The membership benefit funds are doing a great job without any external interference. Unions do not need government interference in their affairs. Does the government also call wage theft, non-payment of workers’ entitlements, and occupational health and safety breaches by employers, the “rule of law?”

Next article – Toxic safety culture putting workers at risk

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