Two of the most aggressive unions are considering uniting as the Turnbull government pushes on with Abbott’s anti-union measures, writes Thom Mitchell.
It’s not hard to imagine a little whinny of rage escaping Michaelia Cash, Australia’s new Minister for Employment, when it was announced last Friday a merger of the nation’s two most ‘militant’ unions is on the cards.
Being a Liberal, the mainstay of Cash’s job involves slinging as much muck and punitive policy as possible at the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Maritime Union of Australia.
It’s a job that will be a little harder if the two unions decide to join forces. Unity is strength, as they say.
The merger has been hailed by the MUA as a “historic moment for trade unionism”. National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said the amalgamation “[would]help us fight the ever-pervasive anti-worker and anti-union attacks on worker’s and their entitlements and job security”.
Cash has been leading the anti-union charge since Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Cabinet reshuffle in September, and her main game as Employment Minister is to persuade the Senate crossbench to pass a suite of reforms her predecessor Eric Abetz failed twice to make the case for.
The Maritime Union is currently facing down a reform that would see a huge chunk of its members — around 1,000 workers, or 93 per cent of Australians employed in the coastal shipping trade according to the union’s reading of the government’s cost benefit analysis — out of a job.
As New Matilda reported last week, they’d be replaced by labourers who wouldn’t have to be paid in accordance with Australian standards.
From the perspective of Australian workers, it’s hard to see the benefit in that.
But the MUA has a relatively modest 15,000 members. It’s the 90,000 workers represented by the CFMEU that have been more consistently targeted by the government as it seeks to undermine the union, which is consistently accused of thuggery and intimidation by the government and its agencies.
WorkChoices may be “dead, buried, and cremated” but workers represented by the CFMEU have faced far more aggressive tactics from Liberal governments than those working in other sectors, at least since the time of John Howard’s prime ministership.
The government remains determined to exhume a Howard-era industry watchdog called the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), though it has twice failed to do so since Tony Abbott’s 2013 election win.
The ABCC would have an extraordinary array of powers including the right to interrogate workers and union officials who would lose their right to silence simply for working in the construction industry. Before it was repealed by Labor in 2012 disobeying this “tough cop on the beat”, more powerful in many ways than the actual police, was punishable by six months in jail.
Another Bill that is largely targeted at the CFMEU would force ‘registered organisations’ — read, unions — to comply with far more rigorous financial disclosure and transparency rules, lift a range of civil penalties, and create new criminal offences.
Under the Registered Organisations Bill another “tough cop on the beat” would be established, with a special commissioner acting, in the words of the explanatory memorandum, “to monitor and regulate [unions]with enhanced investigation and information gathering powers”.
After snatching the top job, Turnbull promised he would not be “waging war on unions”, but the MUA and CFMEU are seen as special cases. He’s remained loyal to Abbott’s attack-dog policies.
“Within the construction industry, there is still a culture of fear; there is still a culture of intimidation,” Cash insisted on Friday.
“I mean, the statistics from the independent regulator, the independent umpire showed that in the last year alone, there have been 1000 breaches of various types of law by the CFMEU on construction sites throughout Australia,” she said.
It’s worth noting, as Shadow Minister for Employment Brendan O’Connor did earlier today, “this is dealing with civil breaches; no one is suggesting any criminal laws have been broken”.
“In many cases they will be the equivalent of industrial jaywalking,” he said.
But industrial jaywalking can get you sued, and that can be expensive. As Crumlin noted in an interview with ABC News 24 on Friday, “the whole business is now a minefield of litigation, a lot of it vexatious”.
“We can build a stronger union with better resources, better financial resources, better legal resources, better intervention and counselling resources — all of the things that the community isn’t providing fully for workers — and we can do it through economies of scale that don’t see us losing our [MUA] identity,” Crumlin said.
The National Secretary of the CFMEU, Michael O’Connor said that the potential merger “offers us a chance to strengthen our politics within the CFMEU, because the struggle isn’t just about increasing wages, or creating a safe work site, there is also a bigger and important political struggle”.
Like clockwork, The Australian newspaper reported this morning that “industry groups called last night for a swift response to Friday’s agreement to combine the Maritime Union of Australia with the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union”.
As it becomes increasingly clear that penalty rates are on the chopping block, and the Turnbull government seems to be finding the pluck to start talking about industrial relations reform — an area littered with minefields and political scalps for Liberal governments — the political struggle O’Connor mentioned looks to be heating up.
Crumlin said “it’s incumbent on trade unions, too, to have economies of scale so they can get in a conversation with these big corporations and ensure that their employees and the workers that we represent have proper representation”.
The Australian reports this morning that in response to the proposed merger Cash has renewed her push to pass punitive, anti-union legislation. No doubt she’d rather not be having a conversation with a 100,000-strong ‘super union’.