More aggressive union officials customarily beat their chests about proudly representing the interests of ordinary people. As a result, when corruption in their ranks is exposed, it invites a special level of contempt.
The ongoing trial of former federal MP Craig Thomson carries persistent reminders of an alleged rot that had set in at the top of the Health Services Union – whose members are among the lowest paid workers in the country. Thomson is accused of using union funds to, amongst other seedy pursuits, pay for prostitutes.
There’s the sorry mess over the AWU Workplace Reform Association which involved the embezzlement of funds for the personal benefit of union officials.
As if the union movement needed any more bad publicity, today there revelations of widespread corruption in the construction industry, including kickbacks to union officials in exchange for their support during the contract approval process.
Strong together. Tidily profitable when in it for yourself.
This is a disaster for the union movement already struggling to maintain relevance and the revelations could not come at a worse time for them in the political cycle.
Tony Abbott has promised there won’t be any changes to the national workplace relations framework in the current parliament, but there’s nothing to prevent the Coalition from building a case for sweeping reforms over the next two years and seeking a mandate in another election, which it will approach holding 90 seats to Labor’s 55 in the House of Representatives. This gives it room to takes some political risks on workplace reform which was a no-go area last year.
As a first step, employment minister Eric Abetz seized on today’s revelations to pressure Labor and the Greens to drop their opposition to the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, the industry watchdog that Labor abolished in 2012. There are also signs there may be a royal commission into union corruption.
Unions play a vital role, especially when it comes to dealing with rapacious employers – and there are plenty – that try to gouge workers out of entitlements. Membership has been steadily waning for decades but the flow-on effect of a strong, reasonable, consistent voice of advocacy for workers has benefits that flow through to millions of people. For example, the union movement is rightly proud of having helped to secure the world’s highest minimum wage.
You only have to look at the emerging debate about income inequality gripping the United States – Barack Obama is expected to touch on it in his State of The Union address this week – to recognise the overall stabilising effect that a strong representation for the interests of workers can have.
But to maintain their authority and relevance the union movement also needs to command respect.
Early responses from CFMEU officials – you can read their initial reactions here – emphasise the action the union has taken against officials involved in corrupt conduct before. But they also go on to say they’re not responsible for the awarding of contracts, nor do they control the behaviour of companies. They’ve highlighted some frustration at police inaction on alleged criminal activity in the construction industry.
The problem remains for the CFMEU that people connected with it are alleged to have used the associated clout for personal benefit, or to influence commercial decisions, sometimes to the benefit of criminals.
The unfortunate coincidence for the CFMEU as it defends itself is that, in many of the allegedly crooked deals revealed today, a common thread is that its members were involved. They need to get to grips with the problems under their own roof.
This is a union with an unquestionable history of involvement in standover tactics and illegal behaviour. Either the union attracts undesirables, or they are allowed to flourish within it. Both of these are problems for the union itself, nobody else.
There is a shake-up coming for the building industry, and there may be wider implications for workplace policy and the role of unions generally. The revelations about the construction will lead to the CFMEU – and potentially current and former members – being poster-boys for the union movement in the process.
Well, to borrow a phrase from the union playbook, they’ll have fought hard for the privilege.
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