Editorial: Morrison and Co. attack worker representation
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 124 No 7, 27 September 2019, page no. 5
They say that one lesson the LNP “learned” from the Your Rights at Work campaign in the lead-up to the 2007 election was to attack and weaken the unions representing workers, rather than attacking workers directly.
Little wonder then that the Morrison government has returned to union-bashing. It has resurrected two pieces of legislation that died with the last Parliament: the Ensuring Integrity Bill and the Proper Use of Worker Benefits Bill (George Orwell would be appalled!). The bills are currently being considered by a Senate Committee.
The proposed legislation does not immediately affect QTU members and the QTU, which operates in the state industrial relations system. It does affect the AEU – the union representing teachers at the national level – and teachers in at least Victoria, the two territories and NSW TAFE. It affects most unions and workers nationally. With a state election on 31 October 2020 and memories of the Campbell Newman/Jarrod Bleije rampage through state industrial relations still fresh in our minds, it gives an insight to intentions and the stakes in the election next year. Space only allows for examining one of these pieces of legislation. I’ve chosen the Ensuring Integrity Bill.
What the bill proposes
The bill changes four areas of the Registered Organisations Act:
- broadening grounds for disqualification from holding union office
- broadening grounds for deregistration of a union on application by the Minister, the Registered Organisations Commission or any person with sufficient interest
- expanding grounds to appoint administrators to “dysfunctional organisations”
- a public interest test to apply to union amalgamations (including retrospectively!), including the effect on employers.
The demonised CFMMEU is their justification for taking action against unions and union officials for multiple failures to prevent contraventions of laws or multiple findings against members, particularly in taking unprotected industrial action or exercising right of entry. However, nurses point to their campaigns for staffing ratios and teachers can point to their campaigns for maximum class sizes, which involved industrial action now regarded as unprotected or unlawful, as examples of what might lead to disqualification of people from holding office in (or even being members of) a union and deregistration of the union.
The laws around strikes and industrial action in Australia are broken and unjust. They fail to meet the standards of international treaties and instruments to which Australia is voluntarily a party. They are designed to limit the capacity of workers and their unions to achieve secure jobs, living wages and safe modern working conditions.
One of the grounds for deregistration in this bill is “obstructive industrial action”. I think there is little point in any other kind. So, having narrowed the grounds for protected industrial action to limited circumstances during bargaining, a “privilege” as a High Court judgement characterised it last year, the Morrison government now seeks to amend laws to remove union officials, de-register unions, override member control of unions and block union amalgamations.
My favourite short take on the consequences of the bill comes from the submission of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights: “[The bill] creates a number of sweeping powers for interference in trade union organisations, which are not only in violations of the principles of freedom of association, but are also highly likely to produce arbitrary and disproportionately punitive outcomes damaging to Australia’s industrial relations system. Harmful to workers, undermining to trade union democracy and no tangible benefit to the promotion of harmonious industrial relations, these measures are … incompatible with Australia’s commitments under the ILO’s [conventions]”.
Another smokescreen regularly used to justify the regulation of unions is to “bring it into line with the corporate sector.” Professor Anthony Forsyth from RMIT, an expert on industrial law, argues the unsuitability of the corporate model of governance for unions in one of his submissions to the bill. He comments too on the government’s selective application of the corporate model, but emphasises its unsuitability: “…the differences between corporations and unions far outweigh the similarities”.
He points to:
- different purposes for which companies and unions are formed
- different interests of shareholders and union members
- unique evolution of trade union regulation over time.
Professor David Peetz from Griffith University in a recent article pointed to the predictability of a stagnating economy and slowing wage growth in an economy where the capacity and scope of unions to represent employees is restricted.
The resurrection of these bills is predictable from a re-elected and emboldened Morrison government. They remain fundamentally anti-worker and anti-union, again predictably so. But they will be opposed at every stage of their making and, if necessary, their operation until the arc of history turns back to protecting and promoting the rights of workers and the legitimate role of their representative unions.