Union demerger law aims to isolate militant wing

Brisbane, November 2018. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

After trying for more than two decades to weaken one of Australia’s most militant unions, the federal government has been handed an opportunity to isolate the Construction Division of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU).

On December 10, the government introduced a bill allowing unions to de-merger. It was then carried in record time with the full support of the Labor Party.

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Withdrawal from Amalgamations) Bill 2020 removes a legal barrier that prevents union divisions from demerging outside of the current five years after they have amalgamated.

The legislation was initiated at meetings between Tony Maher, the former CFMMEU national president, and federal Attorney General Christian Porter.

Michelle Grattan in The Conversation on December 10 predicted that next year, “Maher’s mining division will be heading out of the CFMMEU; the manufacturing division may follow”.

If Grattan is right, it will herald the end of the 144,000-strong amalgamated union that has been instrumental in building momentum to fight anti-union laws, even before John Howard’s hated 2005 WorkChoices laws.

Acting national CFMMEU secretary Dave Noonan responded to the new de-merger law in a letter to members on December 11.

“No official from the Mining and Energy Division ever put a resolution to the National Executive that the Mining and Energy Division proposed to leave the union,” Noonan said.

“Splitting unions is Liberal Party policy. It’s been applauded by big business. It’s designed to weaken and divide workers. It should not be advocated by union leaders or supported by the Labor Party.”

Noonan noted that the “union’s power in society is dependent on workers building power on the job and growing union membership” and that the Construction and General Division had recently conducted elections for elected branch positions and that “all positions were elected unopposed”.

The media is blaming Victorian CFMMEU secretary of the Construction Division John Setka’s refusal to leave the Labor Party and the union, when asked, for the union division.

“He’s been an industrial rogue and the union has caused endless trouble; as well, his private life was in the public domain, with a conviction for harassing his wife,” Grattan said.

The media’s interest in demonising the Construction Division obscures the fact that the Mining and Energy Division and the Manufacturing Division are likely to have other reasons for wanting to leave the CFMMEU.

The Construction Division’s controversial poaching of some 200 floor-laying, glass and cabinetmaking members was stopped only after legal action by the Manufacturing Division.

The recent resignations of Maher and former national secretary Michael O’Connor from the Manufacturing Division have also shown up the union divisions.

It appears that Maher’s rush to negotiate with Porter might have something to do with the Mining and Energy Divisions’ preference to defend coal mining jobs rather than support the own CFMMEU’s Maritime Division’s campaign for new jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Previous divisions could also have had an influence on divisions, including when O’Connor made a deal in 2004 with the then Howard government over forestry jobs in Tasmania. That led to Labor losing two seats, and it built momentum for the anti-union Howard government to be re-elected. At the time, O’Connor said he would be reviewing his membership of the Labor Party.

Rank-and-file construction workers say the tit for tat within the CFMMEU is a dangerous distraction from the federal government’s real motivation for the de-merger bill: it wants to isolate — and possibly deregister — the Construction Division.

This is because the CFMMEU has successfully won enterprise agreements which ensure union members are paid decent wages, commensurate with their skills.

The Construction Division has reduced death and injury rates on all construction sites through its campaigns and the union is seen as an exemplary pacesetter with tens of thousands of loyal members.

The Construction Division has played a linchpin role in the broader union movement campaigns against the anti-union attacks, such as against WorkChoices.

Meanwhile, the federal government is also pushing ahead with new industrial relations laws aimed at weakening workers’ rights on the job.

If “Touch one, Touch all” is going to be more than a slogan, unions and their supporters need to be ready to mobilise in the streets against any and all attempts to weaken the movement. We need to oppose the federal government’s anti-union laws and defend militant unions like the CFMMEU from attack.

[Sue Bolton is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]

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