Health union scandal damages entire movement

A Labor MP, escort services, huge salary packages, allegations of nepotism and police probes have all been connected to the ongoing Health Services Union (HSU) scandal.

The scandal involves allegations against top HSU officials, who are claimed to have misused union funds paid by union members such as ambulance drivers, nurses and health support workers.

Some of the allegations concern Labor MP Craig Thomson, who was national secretary of the HSU from 2002 to 2007. Fairfax Media alleged that during his time as national secretary Thomson’s union credit cards were used to pay for escort services and to withdraw more than $100,000 over a five-year period.

Thomson denies involvement. He launched, but later dropped, a defamation case against Fairfax over the claims. Fairfax Media revealed that credit card transactions used for a brothel were signed by him and included his driver’s licence details.

The Age said on April 20 that “in September 2010 the union's executive agreed to pay $129,555 in entitlements plus $30,000 to settle a defamation claim Thomson had against the union and its national secretary, Kathy Jackson”.

Fairfax has also reported that Thomson and suspended HSU president Michael Williamson received secret commissions from a big supplier to the union.

Williamson is one of the highest paid unionists in the country. He is on a $330,000 salary from the HSU and receives a further $150,000 from board positions. Despite being suspended as HSU president in October last year on suspicion of wrongdoing, he still receives full pay.

The Sydney Morning Herald said members of Williamson’s family have paid positions in the HSU, have been awarded union contracts and have used union facilities to run a private business while on the union payroll.

Jackson has led the allegations against Williamson and Thomson. However, her role in this affair appears to be driven mostly by factional interests.

A factional opponent of Williamson, Jackson receives a $270,000 a year salary, a figure she admitted was “obscene”. Jackson has hired a leading Melbourne anti-union lawyer, Stuart Wood, to lay internal union charges against Williamson.

Unions and the ALP

Thomson and Williamson are high-ranking members of the ALP.

Thomson’s time in the HSU was a springboard to a future career as a Labor MP — a common career path travelled by many union officials.

Williamson previously served as national president of the ALP from 2009 to 2010 and is now the senior vice president of the NSW ALP. Williamson also served on the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) national executive and was Unions NSW vice president until April 12, when he was forced to resign.

The HSU debacle underlines the way ALP parliamentary careerism completely distorts trade unions, turning them into career platforms rather than defenders of workers’ rights. The problem of high-ranking union positions being part of a cosy career path to parliament goes well beyond the HSU.

In many cases, it is difficult to see where the Labor Party ends, and the union officialdom begins. The HSU case is an extreme demonstration of union officials becoming totally divorced from the issues their members face.

Recent examples of a career path from union official to politician include Michael Costa and John Robertson, Unions NSW leaders who became NSW treasurer and NSW Labor opposition leader respectively); federal workplace relations minister Bill Shorten, who was secretary of the Australian Workers Union before moving into parliament; environment minister Tony Burke who came from the Shop Distributors and Allied union; cabinet ministers Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson, both of who are past ACTU presidents; and climate minister Greg Combet, who is a former ACTU secretary.

The conservative media tend to get this relationship backwards, complaining that unions have too much say in the ALP.

Winning unions back for members

The HSU scandal has been a gift to anti-union conservatives. The federal Coalition and right-wing media are using it to smear all unionism, trying to weaken one of the basic strengths working people have — their ability to act collectively to defend and extend their interests. If a Tony Abbott Coalition government is elected, the scandal will be used as a weapon against the entire movement.

Corruption allegations aside, the huge salaries and benefits paid to most union leaders from members' contributions are scandalous — especially when the salaries come from the dues of workers who earn a fraction of that amount. If these exorbitant salaries and expense accounts were diverted, how many more grassroots organisers could be in the field, actively fighting for members’ rights and conditions?

Socialist Alliance Trade Union spokesperson Susan Price told Green Left Weekly that it is up to unions and their members to turn this around.

She said: “The HSU scandal exposes broader problems in the union movement — officials living totally beyond the means of the membership, a lack of democratic control by members over their union, unions being used as personal fiefdoms, and union positions being regarded as simply springboards to a career in parliament.

“For starters, union officials should receive salaries that are equivalent to the workers they are representing, and union funds should be placed under the democratic control of the membership. Union members should collectively decide how their funds are spent.

“Unions need to be democratised at every level. Many unions don’t organise branch meetings of members, let alone mass meetings during a dispute. These need to be a regular part of union life, in order for members to have a say, to bring the leadership to account, and to ensure democratic decision-making.

“Union officials should not only be elected, but also accountable to, and recallable by, the membership – rather than acting as though they are a law unto themselves.

“Importantly, unions have to look seriously and critically at their ties to the Labor Party. In reality, rather than being a seat at the table, these links drag unions into functioning in the ALP’s interests, rather than in the interests of union members.”