The Morrison government has launched a fresh attack on trade unions with a new bill that would even further hamper their ability to organise.
Emboldened by the federal election victory, Morrison is resurrecting the Ensuring Integrity Bill that was previously rejected by the Senate.
Morrison is opportunistically using the highly publicised case of Victorian construction union leader John Setka to paint the union as a whole as thuggish, using this as a battering ram for the new laws. Setka recently pleaded guilty to harassing his wife during a domestic dispute.
Morrison is purposely confusing Setka’s inexcusable harassment with the entirely legitimate industrial action he has helped organise. The CFMMEU must be defended against this assault.
Australia has some of most extreme restrictions on the right to strike in the developed world, criminalising entirely legitimate industrial action. It is only through illegal strike action that construction workers have been able to win yearly pay rises above 5 per cent, secure conditions and maintain safety in a very dangerous industry.
It is this militancy by the Victorian CFMMEU branch in particular that Morrison and the construction bosses want to break.
While Labor is opposed to the bill, Anthony Albanese has made Morrison’s job of passing it easier by condemning Setka’s behaviour over many years and moving to expel him from the Labor Party.
The bill imposes harsher regulations on unions than those on any other organisation, including corporations. It also allows employers and the government of the day to interfere in the democratic operation of unions.
The Federal Court could disqualify officials for breaking industrial laws or failing to stop their organisation from breaking the law.
This could include something as minor as a technical breach of the Fair Work Act, such as filing financial or membership records a day late. It could also include “contravening a bargaining order”—for example when the Fair Work Commission orders a union to end a strike and they refuse.
The bill would give the minister for industrial relations, as well as the politicised Registered Organisations Commission, the power to apply to the Federal Court to deregister a union. This power is also extended to anyone with “sufficient interest”, which is particularly concerning as this could include bosses.
Unions could also be forced to exclude certain members, have their funds and property restricted and controlled and be banned from representing members in bargaining or enforcing awards.
While Morrison claims that this bill is about “ending lawlessness” in the construction industry, it is clear that he is not concerned about the lawbreaking committed by the bosses.
Bosses regularly underpay workers and commit safety breaches but the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission almost never investigates them and focuses on harassing workers that go on strike.
Currently the ABCC is pursuing construction workers in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley with fines of $42,000 for taking one day of illegal strike action over safety concerns. The Ensuring Integrity Bill would make actions like these grounds for deregistering a union.
Deregistering the Victorian branch of the CFMMEU would be an inflammatory move, and could lead to chaos on construction sites. Construction bosses would not welcome this when the industry is still going strong and profits are flowing freely.
More likely, if the bill passes, Morrison will go after Setka and try to remove him as union secretary.
Setka should have stepped down from his leadership position when he knew he would be pleading guilty to harassing his wife. By staying on, he has made Morrison’s job of attacking the CFMMEU easier.
But Setka’s industrial militancy should be defended against the attacks from the Liberals and the bosses. Union members should have the right to decide their elected representatives on the job and it is union members who need to deal with the question of Setka’s harassment.
If the Liberals get away with removing Setka, they will gain confidence to move against other officials and unions too.
The Ensuring Integrity Bill is an attack on the right to strike and the union movement as a whole.
The possible sanctions for defying the law will further scare union officials away from staging effective strike action.
We need a mass campaign of protests and stopwork action against it. Only by spreading the best of the militant industrial tactics of the CFMMEU can we rebuild a fighting union movement.
By Miro Sandev