Just before the federal parliament shutdown for the summer recess, it introduced two anti-worker and anti-union bills.
First, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Withdrawal from Amalgamations) Bill 2020, which removes a legal barrier that prevents union divisions from demerging five years after they amalgamate.
The second bill is the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, dubbed the “Omnibus Bill”.
It involves a number of “reforms” that clearly increase profits for business and attack conditions and pay for workers, particularly those in casual and insecure work — the very workers hit hardest by the COVID-19 lockdowns and those most likely to have been essential workers during that time.
The first bill was carried easily, with the full support of the Australian Labor Party.
The second will face greater challenges as it was not even discussed with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and it ignores the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT).
The Socialist Alliance believes that both pieces of legislation are dangerous and should be opposed.
It also believes that opposition to the bills should begin with united, mass street campaigns in all major cities, similar to the Australian Council of Trade Unions-inspired Your Rights at Work campaigns in 2007.
Concerningly, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Withdrawal from Amalgamations) Bill 2020 has already passed both Houses of Parliament, with very little public debate. The union movement needs to urgently discuss the implications of this law and what can be done about it.
The Withdrawal from Amalgamations Bill appears to be innocuous and should involve a democratic right — the right of unions to demerge if that’s what the members want.
However, section 94 of the bill makes clear that the final decision on any demerger would be up to the Fair Work Commission.
In other words, the democratic desire of workers, who want to leave a union amalgamation, is not decisive.
This bill is therefore about the state giving itself more power to interfere in, or control, union affairs.
In this instance, it is an attempt by the federal government, in collusion with the Labor Party, the Mining Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union and the Manufacturing Division to isolate the Construction Division.
A number of highly publicised skirmishes have happened in that union over the last two years — not the least being the prosecution of John Setka for harassment of his wife and demands that he stand down as Victorian Construction Division Secretary and leave the Labor Party.
This has since been met with division within the amalgamated structure of the CFMMEU, resignations, court cases over poaching and so on.
Whatever one's thoughts on Setka’s behaviour, it cannot be denied that conservative governments have done their best to smash the CFMMEU’s Construction Division, now for more than 20 years, because it has set a high standard for pay, conditions and safety.
The union has also led many of the mass campaigns and fight-backs against assaults on workers, and it commands intense loyalty from tens of thousands of workers and its own members.
No union movement in its right mind should support the isolation and potential de-registration of its strongest sector. Yet, Labor supports this and the ACTU appears to be silent.
The Socialist Alliance condemns the Labor Party for supporting legislation that splits unions, and calls on the ACTU to do the same.
We believe that the ACTU must call all unions together, insist on the principles of “Touch one, Touch all” and work out how to unite all unions in a fightback.
The campaign must motivate workers to take action that defends their own interests and maintains unity, while also maintaining its independence from Labor.
It must be a mass campaign involving stop-works, rallies and maximising the involvement of all workers. Otherwise, we will see the further erosion of the union movement and even greater losses for workers’ rights.
[The Socialist Alliance issued this statement on December 19, 2020.]