Union-busting bill an attack on us all

November 1, 2019
A ferry workers strike in Brisbane on December 6, 2018.
A ferry workers strike in Brisbane on December 6, 2018. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

The Coalition’s Ensuring Integrity Bill will be voted on sometime over the next two weeks following the conclusion of a Senate inquiry into the proposed union-busting legislation.

If passed, the bill will enable the government to further interfere in internal union affairs, granting it powers to deregister unions, place unions into administration and sack elected officials.

The bill proposes a new “fit and proper person” test that could be used to disqualify a person from serving as a union official if they have committed a criminal offence.  It also includes an insidious “public interest test” that gives powers to bosses to override the will of union members.

The Greens and Labor oppose the bill.

In their dissenting report, The Greens argued it represents a politically motivated attack on workers and unions and that, while purporting to implement the recommendations of the trade union royal commission, goes well beyond its findings.

Labor’s dissenting report noted that “including unprotected industrial action as grounds for triggering disqualification or deregistration will threaten both worker and public safety”.

In a submission to the inquiry, Griffith University professor David Peetz wrote: “There do not appear to be any developed industrialised countries with the type of regulation of the internal affairs of unions envisaged in the bill, and those countries that do impose substantial new restrictions on unions tend to mainly be countries which have experienced military coups, martial law or some other trauma to the democratic process.”

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights examined the bill in 2017 and found it would likely be “incompatible with the right of freedom of association”.

The government is counting on support from the Centre Alliance, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie to pass the bill. 

While the Centre Alliance claims to oppose state interference in the amalgamation of “law abiding organisations”, it has not ruled out passing the bill, instead calling for amendments “to do public good”. It wants to amend the bill to introduce, among other measures, a driver licenses-style demerit points scheme in which an application to deregister a union or remove a union official can only be made once a points threshold is reached.

The Centre Alliance’s assertion that unions “must be respectful of the law” ignores the fact that the industrial relations legislation goalposts have been continuously shifted against unions.

Importantly, Australia has no legislation protecting the fundamental right to strike or many other rights enshrined in international covenants.

Parallels have been drawn between the government’s drive to silence unions and its attacks on civil liberties through increased powers of surveillance and new anti-protest laws. 

Queensland’s Labor government recently introduced anti-protest laws preventing protesters from using lock-on devices to attach themselves to buildings and vehicles and cause disruptions to business-as-usual.

Queensland Council of Unions acting general secretary Michael Clifford told a hearing of the state’s legal affairs committee, that the move is “a slippery slope”. 

“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how these laws could be amended to capture the sorts of activities that union members are involved in,” Clifford said.

Governments — and the corporations they serve — understand that as the economic and climate crises deepen, they will need to resort to more authoritarian measures to maintain their ecologically and socially destructive system.

In the meantime, Green Left Weekly will continue to be on the frontlines, supporting mass action against corporate tyranny and condemning any erosion of the right to organise and fight.

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