Tony Abbott was elected in 2013 on the “promise” that the Coalition’s proposed industrial relations legislation, Work Choices, was “dead, buried and cremated”.
Of course, few workers genuinely believed that an incoming Coalition government would keep its word. Certainly, construction workers knew it was only a matter of time before they were in the firing line.
Four years on — after the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption and the re-introduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) — several unions have begun campaigning against another set of laws.
These laws have tame, even innocuous names like the Proper Use of Workers Benefits Bill, the Corrupting Benefits legislation and the Ensuring Integrity Bill. They also seemingly target secondary issues like superannuation, entitlement funds or the abilities of unions to merge.
But their intent is to further undermine the effectiveness of unions and the hard fought gains that workers have won over the past century.
Employment minister Michaelia Cash justified the enactment of the Corrupting Benefits legislation on September 11 by saying: “Strong new laws banning secret and corrupting payments between employers and unions come into effect from today, ensuring Australian workers’ interests are put first when workplace agreements are being negotiated.”
Speaking about the Proper Use of Worker Entitlements Bill the following day, Cash said: “The [Malcolm] Turnbull government will introduce legislation to protect the benefits of Australian workers and ensure they are held for workers and not spent for other purposes.”
The Australian Mines and Metals Association said of the Ensuring Integrity Bill on August 16 that it sends “a reassuring signal to people who have been affected by the bullying, harassment and intimidation tactics seen in militant union behaviour that is unacceptable and has no place in Australia.”
But as Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus has noted, these new laws are an attack on democracy. The Ensuring Integrity Bill, for example, would disrupt union mergers and make it easier to disqualify union officials or deregister a union, among other things.
“Everyone should be worried that this is an attack on democracy by interfering with the running of unions,” McManus said on September 12. “Whenever the job of unions is made harder, it hurts all working people, that is time and money we won't be able to spend raising wages and making jobs more secure.”
Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union national construction secretary Dave Noonan has outlined exactly what the Proper Use of Worker Benefits Bill has been designed to do.
He notes on the union’s website that this legislation could lead to the loss of apprentice jobs and the union movement’s ability to deliver health and safety courses.
Noonan wrote: “[The] bill seeks to control worker entitlement funds, which support workers who are made redundant. Interest from these funds supports health, safety and welfare programs, training and education in one of the most dangerous industries with high rates of suicide”.
Noonan told a Senate Committee hearing on October 30 that what the government is proposing is an unprecedented and unwarranted level of control and interference over union funds, for which there is no equivalent in the corporate world.
If passed, the bill would prohibit donations to welfare or charitable organisations, meaning support for programs such as Mates in Construction, a mental health/self-harm and suicide prevention program, would be made illegal.
The ACTU has also been at pains to point out the shortcomings of legislation undermining superannuation funds.
ACTU President Ged Kearney said on November 1: “We are deeply troubled that the government would make changes to super which will not address the massive theft of workers’ super, but in fact make it worse.
“Instead, the government has decided to attack working people, open up their financial security to the scandal plagued big banks, and make it harder for unions to do their job standing up for working people.”
The ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign is aimed at uniting workers to defend their interests and oppose the raft of anti-union legislation being put forward by the federal government.
The Change the Rules Campaign Kit issues a call to action, asking workers to join their union and get involved. “Once we build our movement, we will need to fight for the solutions,” it reads.
Strong stuff if it leads to unions coming out onto the streets to confront the entitled bluster and bankrupt rhetoric of the likes of Cash and Turnbull.
Even more so if union leaderships decide to spend more time building the confidence of their ranks to fight back, than rebuilding a Labor Party that has time and again turned its back on workers.
We saw the latter occur before, when the “Your Rights At Work are Worth Fighting For” campaign in 2007 was rebranded, “Your Rights At Work are Worth Voting For”
The way to beat the anti-working class onslaught from the Coalition and their big business allies is not to funnel worker mobilisations into marginal seats campaigns to elect Labor politicians.
We have to rebuild a fighting independent movement that no political party or big business can feel safe attacking without fear of facing an enraged and united working-class response.
[Sue Bull is a member of the Socialist Alliance and an OHS trainer employed by the CFMEU.]