The right is wrong to scoff at CFMEU comparisons

It’s been a big week for holier-than-thou scoffing from right wing commentators.

In the wake of ACTU secretary Sally McManus’ comments last week, endorsing the idea of breaking unjust laws, many people pointed out that McManus’ sentiments echoed the views of US civil rights movement icons Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, and South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

This led right wing media pundits to start frothing at the mouth. Australian columnist Chris Kenny put on his best attempt at a “this is so ridiculous” voice for Sky TV:

“They are defending the behaviour of the CFMEU thugs and other union thugs around the country by trying to invoke … Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Junior. I mean it is hilarious. It actually dishonours the memory of those great world citizens as well. It is kind of unhinged and very hilarious.”

Australian Financial Review editor Michael Stutchbury declared on ABC TV’s Insiders program: “We’re not talking about laws that are so bad that they demand that people break them. This is not Rosa Parks, this is not Nelson Mandela, this is backing what is really a union of violence and thuggery, which [has a] business model based on repeated law-breaking”.

Kenny and Stutchbury love to heap praise on “great world citizens” such as King, Parks, and Mandela – now that they are safely dead.

It was a different story, of course, when these fighters were alive and leading mass struggles, in defiance of unjust laws.

From 1963 up until Martin Luther King’s assassination (and even beyond) the US Federal Bureau of Investigation waged a vicious campaign of smear and scandal designed to undermine his reputation. A later US Senate inquiry, quoting FBI documents, found that King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963 triggered a major covert operation.

“The Bureau's Domestic Intelligence Division concluded that this ‘demagogic speech’ established Dr King as the ‘most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country’. Shortly afterwards … the FBI decided to ‘take him off his pedestal’, ‘reduce him completely in influence’, and select and promote its own candidate to ‘assume the role of the leadership of the Negro people’. In early 1968, Bureau headquarters explained … that Dr King must be destroyed because he was seen as a potential ‘messiah’ who could ‘unify and electrify’ the ‘black nationalist movement’.”

Media smears were part and parcel of this effort. FBI documents show attempts to influence press coverage through letters alleging that “King is merely using the Negroes of the Selma area for his own personal aggrandisement; that he is not genuinely interested in their welfare, but only in their donations … The letter should also play up the possibility of violence”.

Playing up self-interest and violence is pretty much the approach of today’s billionaire-sponsored defamers of our union movement.

Of course King was targeted, these well-paid propagandists might respond. But this is the CFMEU we’re talking about. It’s meant to be obvious that the union is in a different moral universe from Dr King. As Kenny babbled on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News: “I just refreshed my memory today about what was before the courts last year from the unions and we had a hundred CFMEU officials and delegates before the courts on a thousand different breaches – coercion, unlawful strikes, intimidation, bullying, right of entry offences”.

The “100 officials and 1,000 offences” line is a fabrication of Murdoch’s Australian newspaper. It’s based on the 2015 annual report of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which shows that the ABCC had investigated a total of 948 alleged contraventions of workplace laws.

The number of prosecutions in the same period, however, is rather less spectacular: 36. Of these, 20 were for “right of entry” offences. The workplace laws inherited from the ALP make it illegal for a union official to visit a union member in their workplace without giving 24 hours’ notice and adhering to a raft of strict conditions. To their enormous credit, construction unions – especially in Victoria – simply refuse to abide. More than half the prosecutions relate to this refusal.

A further nine prosecutions relate to “coercion” – basically, an industrial association (mainly the CFMEU) applying industrial pressure (threatening bans or strikes) to achieve an industrial outcome (mainly, preserving the protections of a pattern agreement governing wages and conditions across the industry).

That leaves just seven prosecutions for unlawful industrial action. Hardly the feast of vicious criminality that Kenny and his type drool over.

The ABCC is desperate to increase the number of prosecutions. So desperate that it was blasted by a Federal Court judge last week for prosecuting two union officials who visited a building site and, according to the ABCC’s own charge sheet, did nothing more serious than drink a cup of tea.

It’s not just a matter of fabrication – though there is plenty of that. We should also reject the idea – implicit in the sneering remarks of right wing commentators – that while King, Mandela and Parks were fighting for some lofty ideal, the CFMEU is only fighting for some grubby base motive.

The old saying is correct: the cause of labour is the hope of the world. Unlike the media moguls who finance the Kennys and Stutchburys, workers have no interest in keeping alive the systems of domination and exploitation that the Kings, Parks, and Mandelas fought against for so much of their lives.

That’s why members of militant, left wing unions lost pay and risked victimisation to support the struggles of Indigenous people in Australia and Blacks in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s – when people with Kenny’s and Stutchbury’s brand of politics were pouring scorn on these freedom movements. Martin Luther King recognised the labour movement – even one scarred by racism – as a vital potential ally for the civil rights movement. (Efforts by King to reach out to organised labour in the US were met with fury by the FBI, which prepared an article for sympathetic media raising the question of “who really gets squeezed when these two pythons get together”.)

There is nothing base or ignoble in fighting for a decent life for working class people, as many of the CFMEU’s critics imply. In fact, quite the contrary. And the ability to stop the flow of profit is one of the greatest weapons our side has against the rich and powerful. As a freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela recognised as much.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison for advocating and organising an armed struggle against South Africa’s racist apartheid regime. Kenny and Stutchbury might even know that, as a result, this “great world citizen” was only removed from the US government’s terrorism watch list in 2008.

What gets noticed less often is that, at the time Mandela was tried and convicted for organising armed attacks on the regime, he was already in jail – for advocating unlawful industrial action. Mandela had been jailed in the wake of a three-day strike in May 1961 against the whites-only government. His statement in defence of the general strike concluded:

“We are the people of this country. We produce the wealth of the gold mines, of the farms, and of industry. Non-collaboration is the weapon we must use to bring down the government. We have decided to use it fully and without reservation.”

Those words would not be out of place in Australia today.