Trade Union Royal Commission signals new attacks on workers

May 29, 2015

On May 19, the federal government’s Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption released a 116-page discussion paper recommending a swathe of new attacks on union rights.

The proposals give the clearest indication so far of the likely outcome of the expensive inquisition into the union movement when the commission releases its findings in December.

The document presents little more than a sweeping wish list of restrictions on the rights of union officials and the ability of unions to carry out their work to benefit members.

Among the ideas presented for “discussion” is further restricting right of entry provisions, making it harder for union officials to enter worksites to investigate safety and other breaches by employers.

In this, as well as other proposals, the pro-employer bias of the commission is clear. Rather than recognising the importance of union right of entry in preventing workplace deaths and protecting work conditions, the paper frames union right of entry powers as a “serious encroachment upon liberty” to be curtailed.

Directly targeting union militancy, the paper also suggests new police “move on” powers to break up picket lines and protests at construction sites.

Under the proposed new laws, anyone who fails to leave an area within 15 minutes of a police direction would be guilty of an offence, and conviction would be grounds to automatically ban a person from holding any union office.

Other suggestions floated include the recording of union meetings, removing default superannuation schemes from enterprise agreements, and creating an “independent” statutory regulator to monitor unions.

The paper also proposes making unions subject to a number of laws modelled on the Corporations Act and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. These include introducing external audits of union finances and massively increasing fines and duties of officials.

For example, echoing the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill currently before federal parliament, the paper suggests raising penalties for breach of duty by union officials from $10,200 to $204,000.

The paper also proposes new laws around unions receiving bribes and “corrupting benefits”. The laws would impose fines of up to $17 million on companies that “buy industrial peace” with “under-the-table” payments to unions.

This is despite the Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, Jeremy Stoljar, repeatedly confusing actual bribes and legitimate employer contributions to training funds during cross-examination at the commission.

The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) slammed the proposal as unnecessary and over the top, pointing out that bribes are already illegal, and that the union had no tolerance for such behaviour anyway.

In the May 20 Australian, CFMEU construction division national secretary Dave Noonan described the discussion paper as “a grab bag of right-wing anti-union nonsense.”

The explicitly political nature of the Royal Commission is also evident in the paper. Despite repeated assertions of neutrality, the paper is also littered with references to the political power and influence of unions, particularly in relation to the Labor Party.

Ignoring the systemic nature of corporate influence on politics, the paper frets that “senior trade union officials are capable of directly wielding substantial political power”, and proposes limiting unions’ ability to spend money for political purposes.

In fact, despite a handful of caveats and a potted history of the union movement at the start of the paper, at the heart of all the recommendations is a deliberate disregard for the role of unions in society and in the industrial process.

“They don't accept the legitimacy of the Labor Party or unions,” Dave Noonan told the AFR on May 19.

“On Planet Stoljar unions have a right to exist as long as they have no power to assist workers or change society.”

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Dave Oliver went further, condemning the Royal Commission as “a fundamentally political exercise” aimed at “attacking the ability of unions to deliver outcomes for working people — jobs, wages, conditions and safety.”

While business groups have predictably applauded the discussion paper, they are becoming increasingly worried that the Royal Commission is failing to justify its rhetoric – let alone its $60 million budget.

An article in the Australian Financial Review on May 19 indicated that frustration is building with the inability of the Royal Commission to pin any meaningful charges of corruption onto the union movement it is so desperate to vilify.

The article quotes the concerns of “an industry insider” that the Royal Commission is “not on target”, and its lawyers “don't seem to really understand how unions work” and can’t “do their homework”.

The “insider” called for “a killer blow” against the unions, arguing that if one isn’t found, “it gives strength to the claims by the unions and the Greens that this is nothing more than a witch-hunt."

Industry groups are concerned that the whole exercise has failed to present corrupt behaviour by unions – particularly in the building and construction industry – and the commission “is struggling to show that the CFMEU are no more than naughty boys”.

Submissions on the discussion paper are due by August 21, before the Royal Commission presents its findings in December.

No matter how flimsy its case, however, it is clear that the Royal Commission has already made up its mind about what will emerge in the final report. Likewise, the Abbott government can be expected to use it as an excuse to launch a further raft of anti-union laws.

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