All the fanfare when parliament reconvened was for the $158 billion tax cuts for the rich. Waiting in the wings, however, was the new Industrial Relations minister, Christian Porter. On the last day of the first session, Porter resurrected two rejected bills from 2017 and announced a general review of industrial relations.
The first of the two bills is the innocuous-sounding Proper Use of Worker Benefits Bill. Under the guise of banning “secret and corrupting” payments, the bill provides for an unprecedented level of interference in the financial affairs of unions, something the corporate world would never tolerate. Claiming lack of transparency and questionable decision making, Porter’s measures target funds that support redundant workers and pay for vital health and safety and welfare training for union members.
The second – the Ensuring Integrity Bill – is one of the most extreme anti-union bills in Australia’s history. The bill will hand over control of unions from their members to the government. The Australian Council of Trade Unions is right to describe it as “a rollback of the basic rights of working people which has no equivalent in the western world”.
These bills will add to an already draconian set of laws stacked against unions. Any union worth its salt, such as the CFMMEU, has found that just doing its job means breaking such laws. A common “crime” is to keep going onto the job after a “right of entry” permit is cancelled. If Porter gets his way, this will become grounds for disqualification of the union’s organisers and officials. And if disqualified officials refuse to step down, they will be committing a criminal offence under these new laws.
Other so-called crimes – being in contempt of court, repeatedly failing to stop their organisation breaking the law, being deemed not a “fit and proper” person or any other matter the court considers relevant – can also result in fines and even jail time.
And finally, non-compliance with orders or injunctions, “obstructive” industrial action or any other offence against the Fair Work Act, health and safety laws or the building industry legislation can be grounds for the deregistration of a union or one of its branches. If not deregistration, the federal court can disqualify certain officers, alter eligibility rules, suspend rights and privileges of the organisation and members, along with a raft of other punitive measures.
At any stage the court can appoint an administrator to “perform any function or exercise any power”, including managing and disposing of union assets. And the administrator can even require the union to pay for these “services”.
In the area of union amalgamations, no longer will members be the ones to decide. 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 taken into account.
Apart from class hatred of unionism and workers’ rights, why is the Coalition so determined to grind unions into the dust right now? After all, wage growth is at its lowest since WWII, industrial action the same, with strikes down by 95 percent since the 1970s; and almost every attempt to take a stand on the job is criminalised, with unions facing hefty fines.
The answer is simple: for the wealthy and powerful, the class war is never over. They sense the working class is at a weak point, and the ALP in retreat, so what better time to sink the boot in. Penalty rates in retail and hospitality have been cut, and the bosses will be looking for other industries to target. The new government review will look at giving more power to employers to deem a worker “casual” to avoid paying entitlements, removing the “better off overall” test for new enterprise agreements and making it easier to sack workers.
The ACTU has criticised the Morrison government for not mentioning industrial relations during the election campaign and then launching a range of anti-worker moves immediately after it gains power.
But with a failed Change the Rules campaign in recent memory and a weak statement that “The ACTU and the entire union movement will continue to oppose this legislation and fight against this attack on the rights of all Australians”, workers are right to demand better. We need a real union campaign prepared to break the rules in taking it to the ruling class.