Democratic unions can fight corruption

Cleaning workers rally in Sydney, December 2011. Photo: Peter Boyle

Fair Work Australia’s findings into the Health Services Union (HSU) have revealed serious breaches of the union’s rules, as well as federal regulations governing registered organisations.

Industrial relations minister Bill Shorten said on April 26 that the government intended to take unprecedented action and apply to the Federal Court to intervene. Shorten wants to place the HSU in the hands of an administrator, break up the HSU East branch and dissolve its elected leadership.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has given “cautious support” and Unions NSW also said it backs the government’s move.

ACTU President Ged Kearney said on April 26: “This is not something that we would want to see regularly or used as an excuse to deregulate or change the regulation for unions.”

HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson is opposed to the move.

But the voices of rank-and-file HSU members are absent from the media debate about what to do with the HSU in light of these findings.

Jackson and the federal opposition have raised questions about the government’s motivations, particularly about whether Shorten is concerned about protecting HSU members’ rights or wants to shield the ALP and the government from further damage.

Fair Work Australia’s (FWA) report has revealed significant failures in the internal workings of the union and its leadership bodies. The investigation found 181 contraventions of the union’s rules and industrial laws.

Alongside the well-known allegations about the use of credit cards for escort services and cash withdrawals, and the use of union money to fund former national secretary Craig Thomson’s federal election campaign, these contraventions include: the HSU national office failing to hold any properly constituted national council meetings in 2004, 2006 and 2007, the failure to keep minutes or electronic records of national executive meetings from 2002 to 2008; the employment of staff by the HSU national office without the authority of the national executive; and the failure to have an auditor conduct yearly audits between 2003 and 2008.

On April 28, opposition leader Tony Abbott said a Coalition government would launch a Registered Organisations Commission, which would “take on the role of registered organisations enforcer and investigator”. He later told a Victorian Liberal Party Conference the commission would be “a new cop to ensure that these rules are properly enforced”.

It is not clear where the powers of Abbott’s proposed Commission would start and finish, and what it would mean for the ability of rank and file union members to bring officials to account for misconduct under their own union’s rules.

But industrial relations laws introduced without notice into NSW Parliament on May 8 by the NSW Coalition government give an insight into what Abbott may be planning at a federal level.

The NSW Industrial Relations Amendment (Industrial Organisations) Bill was introduced to give the NSW finance minister the power to appoint an administrator to any union. The minister would also have the power to dismiss the elected leadership of any union whenever the minister has “reason to believe” the union was responsible for gross misconduct.

The Greens, ALP and cross-bench members amended the bill in the NSW upper house to give that power to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission, rather than the finance minister.

After the release of the FWA report on May 7, FWA general manager Bernadette O’Neil instructed solicitors to begin federal court proceedings against HSU officials and former officials.

The report also recommended the HSU case be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider if criminal charges should be laid against any union official.

With the likelihood of an Abbott government taking power at the next election, workers and their unions are set to face a renewed onslaught, with attempts to further roll back collective bargaining and industrial rights. The allegations of wrongdoing against former HSU officials who are also high-profile ALP figures is more ammunition for Abbott.

The HSU scandal has brought home the need for rank-and-file unionists to take control of their unions. They need to end the practice of those unions being used as personal fiefdoms, or career stepping stones into parliament, rather than organisations under the democratic control of, and serving the interests of, their members.

In 2001, the Howard Coalition government set up the Cole Royal Commission into allegations of misconduct in the building industry.

The commission found no evidence of organised criminal activity, but the government still later introduced laws to set up the Australian Building and Construction Commission — a special building industry police force with coercive powers of interrogation that still remains largely intact today.

The ACTU condemned the Cole Commission as a politically motivated exercise, designed to weaken building industry unions.

Rather than strengthening the hand of government to interfere in the labour movement, a battle must be fought within unions for them to be democratised at every level. The HSU findings reveal an extreme and shocking example of what can happen when there is a lack of basic democratic functioning and accountability at the national level of a union.

Democratic, member-driven unions, with strong rank-and-file control and oversight, are the best protection against such misconduct and the best way to protect the right of workers to freely organise collectively.

[Susan Price is a trade unionist, and national industrial spokesperson for the Socialist Alliance.]