Vicious anti-union law on hold – for now

It was predictable that a renewed attack on our unions would be high on the agenda for incoming prime minister Scott Morrison.  For a party that can’t agree on how to supply electricity to the country – or on their own leadership – an attack on workers’ organisations can be an important unifying project. 

It’s also a profitable project for the party’s ruling class backers. Attacking unions is core business for any serious ruling class party, and red meat to be thrown to the Liberals’ increasingly rabid right wing. 

So it was no great shock to find Morrison, just a week into his new job, enthusiastically agreeing with right wing radio host Alan Jones’ suggestion that the main construction union, the CFMMEU, should be deregistered.

Deregistration is a version of capital punishment for unions. It strips all legal rights and protections under Australia’s industrial relations system. Enterprise agreements upholding the wages and conditions of a union’s members no longer have legal force. The union’s officials no longer have rights to enter worksites, and it isn’t automatically entitled to negotiate on behalf of its members. 

Making it dramatically easier to deregister unions is one of the main aims of the Ensuring Integrity Bill, reintroduced to the Senate by the Morrison government in September. This Orwellian-titled bill was introduced last year, but abandoned six months ago when the government couldn’t get the numbers to pass it. Attempting to revive this vicious anti-union law was one of the first parliamentary moves by Morrison.

The bill has nothing to do with “ensuring integrity”. It’s all about opening new legal attacks on unions.

First, it would enable any “sufficiently interested” person – including a disgruntled employer – to apply for deregistration, forcing a union into costly legal proceedings to defend its existence. 

Second, it would dramatically lower the legal threshold for deregistration. Australian unions already face the prospect of crippling fines for even small scale industrial action outside of a very narrow legal window of “protected” action. Under the proposed law, any industrial action not in this narrow “protected” window might be grounds for deregistration.

Third, it would give the Federal Court sweeping new powers.  The court could bar union officials from office on a wide range of grounds – including if he or she had been refused a right of entry permit by the Fair Work Commission. 

This is a big deal because, to its credit, the CFMEU has generally refused to abide by the ridiculous restrictions on right of entry imposed by both Liberal and Labor governments. The union maintains that construction union officials, elected by construction workers, should be able to access construction sites without prior notice.

 Because of this stance, dozens of organisers and officials have been stripped of their official right of entry permits. Under the Ensuring Integrity Bill, all could be barred from holding office (or any other position of influence) in a union. In Victoria, those at risk include the entire six-person executive of the CFMEU, Electrical Trades Union secretary Troy Gray and prominent AMWU official Tony Mavromatis.

The Federal Court would also get the power to declare that a union has “ceased to function effectively” and appoint an administrator. The administrator, not the elected leadership of the union, would have “control of the property and affairs of the organisation”. Any official or employee of the union who failed to “attend on the administrator” as instructed would face up to a year in jail. 

And, in a sickening twist, the court appointed dictator of the union would be paid, handsomely, out of union funds.

Finally, the bill would introduce a new “public interest” test for union amalgamations. Unelected commissioners, not democratic union structures, could determine the shape of our organisations.

Reports as Red Flag is going to press indicate that the government has failed to sway enough crossbench senators to ram through this vicious attack on workers’ organisations. It seems that the bill has been withdrawn – for now. 

However, the Liberals have a problem. They have an election to win and nothing much to offer the majority of us except for fear, racism and “law and order” beat-ups. Morrison is looking for more red meat to throw to the party’s right wing, and Australia’s business elite never tire of complaining about the lack of industrial relations “reform” aimed at demolishing unions and the conditions they have won, or reducing unions to toothless, tame cat organisations. 

Few things have the potential to unite a fractured ruling class party like further assaults on workers and our organisations. We haven’t seen the last of these attacks.