New law threatens union democracy

August 26, 2017
ACTU secretary Sally McManus.

The federal government’s war on militant unions has escalated with the introduction of a bill that would give it the power to deregister unions, disqualify officials and block unions from merging.

The bill, which was introduced on August 16, goes further than the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. It could scuttle mergers that have been approved by an overwhelming majority of union members, based on opposition from business.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus blasted the bill as an “Orwellian affront to democracy” and a violation of International Labour Organization conventions on freedom of association.

“Despite the ongoing scandals in Australia’s banks, involving millions of dollars and thousands of Australian’s savings, livelihoods and retirements, the Turnbull government is trying to apply more onerous obligations on unions than apply to the corporate world,’’ she said.

“Effectively it is about giving corporate Australia a say over what unions look like, and how they operate. This is fundamentally undemocratic … This is not an ‘in the public interest test’, it is an ‘in big business’s’ interest test.”

The bill, which could prevent the impending merger between the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Maritime Union of Australia, contains a new “public interest test” that would allow the Fair Work Commission to block union amalgamations if the merging organisations have a "record of not complying with the law".

It says the Fair Work Commission “must” not only have regard to the compliance record of unions but the “impact” a merger would likely have on employers. Employers and ministers would be able to make submissions opposing the merger.

The bill would also give employment minister Michaelia Cash, the Registered Organisations Commission or a party with "sufficient interest" the right to apply to cancel a union's registration if the union or a "substantial number" of its members have repeatedly breached industrial laws, including through unlawful strikes.

The last time a government sought to deregister a union was in the 1980s and involved the CFMEU's predecessor, the Builders Labourers Federation.

The bill would bar union officials from office if they fail to take steps to prevent the breaches or are not "fit and proper", which includes committing a criminal offence in the exercise of their duties or if they are refused a right of entry permit.

The bill will require at least nine crossbenchers to vote for it to pass the Senate. Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has already flagged his opposition to parts of the bill.

He said he believes "the merger between the CFMEU and the MUA is a matter for the organisations' members to decide. Provided the members give their consent freely, without coercion, it is not a matter for the government."

Greens industrial relations spokesperson Adam Bandt said the party was "suspicious of the government's motives".

"The Liberals have consistently attacked the CFMEU on party political grounds, for example, linking them very heavily with Labor, which makes us very wary about supporting legislation just to advance one side in a partisan war."

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