“One of the most ambitious industrial relations agendas that the country has ever seen”, boasted employment minister Michaelia Cash about the latest round of government-driven class warfare. The latest changes – set out in the ideologically named Ensuring Integrity bill – are intended to bleed unions dry and hamper their activities in every possible way.
The Coalition has reinstated the ABCC and other policing bodies, under the farcically named Fair Work Act. Increased fines, restrictions on industrial action and union presence on the job are part of the Coalition’s wider agenda to reduce unions to powerless shadows.
Not content with industrial laws, this government is bringing in other laws designed to cover business, arguing that they should be applied to unions. Governments, especially conservative ones, have a long history of using corporations law against unions. One of the most infamous examples was the Fraser government’s use of sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act (today’s Competition and Consumer Act) to pile on fines for unions taking industrial action to support workers in other industries or workplaces – so-called secondary boycotts – stifling many solidarity actions.
However, despite the legal restrictions, unions remain capable of building support and spreading solidarity. The dispute at CUB was a recent example of this. Unions built and mobilised mass support for wharfies under attack on the waterfront in 1998. The government is launching what it hopes will be a killer blow against this type of activity.
The first of the amendments is being made to the secondary boycott sections in the Competition and Consumer Act, ramping up the penalties. The maximum fine for a strike or boycott to support workers in another firm or industry will go from $750,000 to $10 million. No union could survive paying a fine of this size.
A second raft of changes to the Registered Organisations Act is made under the guise of dealing with “union corruption”. They are a blatant attempt to interfere in the running of unions. Sally McManus, secretary of the ACTU, has described the proposed laws as “giving corporate Australia a say over what unions look like and how they operate”. The targets are union amalgamation, union deregistration – including sending in administrators – and the disqualification of union officials.
The minister, a Fair Work Commissioner or any “person with sufficient interest” (i.e. anyone who’s anti-union) can initiate a case in these areas. And anyone – a union, a branch of a union, individual union officials and even members – will be subject to these laws.
No longer will members be the ones to decide whether unions amalgamate. Imposed on any vote will be a “public interest” test based on the interests of businesses in the sector, the national economic interest and the record of the unions and officials in “complying with the law”. The behaviour of past officials or members will also be considered.
When the laws are stacked against you anyway, it’s all too easy for the government and courts to find against unions. And any union worth its salt will keep on breaking the laws. A most common “crime” is to have a “right of entry” permit revoked or suspended. This will become grounds for disqualification of the union’s organisers and officials. Other so-called crimes – being in contempt of court, repeatedly failing to stop their organisation breaking the law – can end up with fines and even the threat of jail time, again grounds for disqualification.
And finally, non-compliance with orders or injunctions, “obstructive” industrial action or any other offence against any law in the country, can be grounds for deregistration of a union – or a branch of the union. If not deregistering, the Federal Court can disqualify certain officers, alter eligibility rules, suspend rights and privileges of the organisation and members, among a raft of other punitive moves.
At any stage the court can appoint an administrator who could “perform any function or exercise any power”, including managing and disposing of union assets. And for this, the administrator can demand the union pay for their “services”.
Unions are right to be up in arms about these changes, most of which are likely to be passed with the support of the Senate crossbenchers. We must begin the fight against these unjust laws now, not wait for Labor to win government. We won’t win against Turnbull’s government by sidestepping the fight. It’s only our power in the workplaces and on the streets that will defeat the latest salvo in the war on workers.