What Does The Thomson Saga Mean For Unions?


Craig Thomson’s personal saga is coming to an end. After all the lies and evasions the former Member of Parliament and former union official has been found guilty of fraud. All that remains now is the sentencing.

But for the rest of us who work for a living the drama has barely started. Thomson’s thieving was a shameful waste of HSU member’s money, but the real damage he did was not financial — it was political. His tawdry acts of fraud have become a big stick with which the government can beat organised labour, and beat us they shall.

Abbott has announced his Royal Commission into the unions. It is headed up by Dyson Heydon — one of the most conservative retired judges in the country. Though not directly related, the Thomson affair has fed into the political narrative that has allowed the government to call the Commission.

There is no reason to expect it to be anything other than an updated version of the Cole Royal Commission of the Howard years which, at an expense of $60 million, led to precisely zero prosecutions.But prosecutions were not the point of the Cole Commission – the point of the Cole Commission was to tie up union resources in court, and blacken the image of the movement. In that, at least, it had a modicum of success.

Given the size of the labour movement there will inevitably be someone, somewhere, not doing the right thing. So what does the end of the Thomson saga mean for the union movement?

There are two very practical conclusions to draw. The first is that good governance cannot be optional. We have both an ethical and political requirement to make sure that our movement is squeaky clean.

The second is that while good governance is not negotiable, the other bulwark against corruption is ensuring our unions have a healthy and democratic internal culture. Both Thomson and Williamson regarded the Union’s money as their own. They could do this because not only was there an absence of formal mechanisms to challenge them, but there was also no tradition of dissent and debate within their organisation to hold them to account.

On the first question — governance — the response from most of the rest of the union movement has been swift and decisive. The minority of unions who do not have their house in order are in the process of dealing with it. It would be naive to think that there are no other skeletons in closets, but by and large the movement is cleaner now than perhaps it has ever been.

On the second question — democratic internal culture — the situation is a little more nuanced. Some unions have ultra democratic structures: in the FBEU, any motion must be put to a general meeting of all members on the back of the signatures of fifty members. However, some others still offer few opportunities for the rank and file to play a role, apart from voting for office bearers. But internal structures are not the whole story.

Unions need to be relevant, and they need to deliver. It is hard to build a culture of debate and a sense of ownership in an organisation that is not a real force in the workplace. It becomes a chicken and egg situation — in order to succeed unions need to be successful.

The decline in popular participation in political life is something that runs right across the board. The number of people involved in political parties has been decreasing over the past two generations. The social movements that in the past mobilised hundreds of thousands, and included thousands of activists nationally, are shadows of their former selves. Volunteerism in general is declining.

Unions are not immune to this and I don’t have answers to the problem overall, but it is worth noting that those unions that buck the trend tend to be those that organise, that take action, and are a real presence in the workplace.

All this aside, it’s worth reflecting on the partisan nature of this entire affair. A senior union leader stole money. As a union leader I think that is unforgivable. Corruption inside our unions is ethically worse than the rorts of business. We all expect the corporate world to lie, cheat and steal, but when the leadership of the organisations that exist to defend us against such depredations behave in the same manner it smacks of gross hypocrisy. Yet in the grand scheme of things it pales in significance when compared to the legal and structural rorts taken advantage of every single day.

Craig Thomson illegally used health members’ money to pay sex workers. Gina Rinehart has a personal wealth of $17 billion and uses some of that unbelievable wealth to campaign, entirely legally, against paying any form of tax. In 1928 Brecht wrote, “What is robbing a bank as to founding a bank?” Indeed.

The union movement will weather this Royal Commission and the follies of Craig Thomson. Working people will still organise at work to be treated with dignity. In the meantime it bears remembering: crimes of traitors to the union movement like Thomson and Williamson will always be small fry to the theft (both legal and otherwise) of those who really run the show.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.