Lest We Forget The System Propped Up By Elites, Stacked Against Workers


The recent furore over political raids on the Australian Workers’ Union  is a reminder of what workers have fought for, and still face, writes Mark Morey.

The problem with born-to-rule conservatives is they don’t respect the rule of law. If you believe you were destined to control, it doesn’t leave any room for abstract notions like justice and due process.

These born-to-rule conservatives think nothing of using taxpayer millions to set up a supposedly independent watchdog and then immediately sicking it on their political enemies.

The matter the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) is so hellbent on pursuing is a decade-old donation from the Australian Workers’ Union to GetUp!, which was never a secret in the first place.

Shop-Sparkke_Banner_300x250The investigation revolves around whether the correct paperwork was created and kept. It is not remotely close to a criminal matter. In fact, even if the ROC’s very darkest theories are correct, it will mean the AWU will be liable of a maximum possible fine of $11,000.

However, the government thought this was deemed worthy of politicising the Australian Federal Police with a reality TV raid.

When outrage started to pour in about the use of police force to pursue such an obviously political target, Turnbull’s response was pure arrogance. Rather than provide a proper explanation he simply, accused Bill Shorten of having “questions to answer.”

Now, as we now know, the plot is even thicker.

The office of the relevant minister, Michaelia Cash, had tipped media off about the raids, ensuring they happened in the full glare of cameras. Even more outrageously, a Fair Work Ombudsman media advisor with prior knowledge of the raids was in the process of transferring to work in Cash’s office.

Before he toppled Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull promised to restore proper Cabinet governance. Clearly that does not extend to ministerial responsibility, separation of powers, and avoiding perceptions of conflicting interests.

This whole affair is a warning to us about the fragility of our system. But it’s not the first.

Last week, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union gathered at the Eveleigh Carriageworks, to commemorate the Great Strike of 1917 – the greatest industrial upheaval Australia has known.

More than 70,000 workers took part in processions and demonstrations in Sydney and across New South Wales over a 10-week period.

Merv Flanagan, a member of the Carters Union was part of a protest opposite the Children’s Hospital at Camperdown. He and his fellow strikers hurled abusive language at two passing strike breakers.

One of the strike breakers was Reginald Wearne, brother of a conservative MP from Namoi in regional NSW. Wearne raised his revolver, fatally shooting Flanagan in the heart.

What followed speaks volumes about how the establishment looks after its own to preserve its wealth and power.

Shop-Sparkke_Banner_300x250Major grazing and pastoral interests combined with the top tier law firm, Allen, Allen & Hemsley, to build a legal war chest to fund Wearne’s defence on manslaughter charges. Historic accounts indicate there was enthusiasm for this among the elite of the day, who felt Wearne had delivered an important lesson to the striking workers. Contributors to the fund described Flanagan as the “scum of the earth” and “a parasite on the social order of the state.”

Wearne was granted bail on manslaughter and ‘felonious slaying’. There is no record of him ever proceeding to trial. However, two of Merv Flanagan’s fellow strikers, his brother James, and his fellow unionist, Henry Williams were convicted of using violence to prevent Wearne from following his lawful occupation. Each was sentenced to three months in jail.

Merv Flanagan’s widow was left to bring up their one-year-old boy alone. In fact, the day Merv was killed, his son was suffering malnourishment, a consequence of his father being on strike for many weeks.

We shouldn’t forget how our system of laws too often finds ways to turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing of the powerful. It is the job of social reformers to keep improving an imperfect world, adding increments of progress when we can.

But we also have to call out hypocrisy and injustice. The criminal justice system was stacked against Merv Flanagan in 1917.

We should be mindful of how it continues to be stacked against workers and their representatives.


Mark Morey is the secretary of Unions NSW. Mark has served the peak trade union body for the past decade. Prior to that he campaigned and bargained on behalf of public transport workers, at the Rail Tram and Bus Union.