Testing the thesis (continued)
(Power of labour suppressed or eliminated)
During most of the twentieth century unions were the dominant force of Australian industrial life. For most of that time they were the point of convergence of many employees. Between 1914 and 1990 at least two in five workers were members of a union.
At its first meeting on 1 August 1890 the Council of the Australian Labor Federation had written the first plank in its parliamentary platform as “Universal white adult suffrage for all parliamentary and local elections”; and in 1905 the federal parliamentary platform proclaimed the following: “ Objective – (1) The cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity, and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community. (2) The securing of the full results of their industry to all producers by the collective ownership of monopolies and the extension of the industrial economic functions of the State and Municipality.”
There would be some membership fluctuations, with more members in the 1920s, after the second world war and during the Whitlam years, and there had been considerable contractions during the Great Depression and in the 1960s. At the middle of last century 50 per cent of the workers were unionised; today the figure hovers around 15 per cent. Casual employment, the arrival of the computer, and the opening of jobs to more women have brought about de-unionisation. Strikes have now become extremely rare.
For a long time since its formation, the Labour Movement has, very much like the Labor Party, stressed the importance of some basic values: Australian nationalism, ‘racial purity’, and practical reformist measures, rather than any kind of general, doctrinaire socialist programme for rearranging society.
In preserving ‘law and order’, at first the colonial governments and after federation the state governments collaborated with employers’ organisations, while the press, almost unanimously, denounced those of the employees.
News of the French Revolution arrived in the colony with the Second Fleet in 1790. Most colonies during the 1890s set up some kind of early corporative, legal machinery for compulsorily arbitrating disputes between employers and employees. Labor’s view was by no means solidly enthusiastic; its more realistic view of the state’s role in strike struggles was, rather, that state arbitration might prove another employers’ device for coercing the wage earners.
When union numbers increased during the 1970s, Australians became more likely to tell the pollsters – more often than not under the control of corporatist media – that unions had “too much power.” The evidence was never requested.
But there was another, and more insidious reason for the fall of unionism: the ‘Accord’ which was the product of the corporative effort of the Hawke/Keating Government. Unions declined then, or – rather – they lost their real raison d’être in an enfeebling innovation of capital-labour collaboration: the Third Way. The ‘Accord’ and rapidly moving international conditions brought about four consequences: changes to laws governing unions, greater market competition, structural change and, as a result, structural inequality.
It was no longer possible to feel a sense of real solidarity and equality over such uniting common clichés as ‘equality, solidarity and mateship’. They had come from some mythical presentation by William Guthrie Spence that “Unionism came to the Australian bushman as a religion. … It had in it the feeling of mateship which he understood already, and which always characterised the action of one ‘white man’ to another. Unionism extended the idea, as a man’s character was gauged by whether he stood true to union rules or ‘scabbed’ it on his fellows. … The lowest form of reproach is to call a man a ‘scab’.”
Long before the end of the twentieth century, solidarity had all gone, with Hawke against the air pilots to favour his ‘mate’ ‘Sir’ Peter Abeles in 1989, and Howard organising the ‘scabs’ against the maritime workers to favour his ‘mate’ Corrigan in 1998.
Of the three characterising myths only the last remained: the right to call everybody by her/his first name. That the salary of the boss was a huge multiplier of the meagre salary of the employee – when s/he was engaged in work – still did not matter. What mattered was such pervasive uncouthness.
By this time television had arrived, and very successfully, to expand the myth, dispense vulgarity, and console that “We are all in it, together.”, in the general dumbing-down of what really matters in life.
Before the turn to this century, employers had arranged what could have become the final stroke against unions: the election of the Howard Government. It is not a popular view, but there was something to make Howard ‘one of us’, rather ‘one like us’. He is ordinary, modestly educated, with little ambition to refine the condition of life, a sense of self-satisfaction, uninterested in improving one’s intellectual baggage, self-deprecating, a ‘nationalist’, constitutionally a racist, a monarchist, and profoundly a Philistine.
Howard’s long period in government had a firm programme on a limited number of points: maintain the ‘alliance’ with the Great-And-Powerful-Friend, defend the national borders – that is keep attempting refugees out, protect the ‘producers’, and subjugate the workers. He was particularly vicious when it came to the most resistant of unions.
Against the building workers he erected the Australian Building and Construction Commission – A.B.C.C., an anti-union tribunal which has for nine consecutive years embarrassed Australia by earning the condemnation of the International Labour Organization.
The U.N. I.L.O.’s Committee of Experts, an eminent body of labour law jurists, repeatedly noted – and in 2012 for the eighth time – that: “the manner in which the ABCC carries out its activities seems to have led to the exclusion of workers in the building and construction industry from the protection that the labour inspection system ought to secure for these workers under the applicable laws, … the Committee urges the Government to ensure that the priorities of the ABCC (or the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate) are effectively reoriented.”
Some unions have bitterly criticised the attitude of the Rudd/Gillard, and then of the Gillard Government. One of them, in particular, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, has made its view known in fourteen broad, well reasoned and argued, propositions which was to bear upon the performance of the Rudd/Gillard Government 2007‐10 and Labor’s performance in the 2010 general election.
Prime Minister Gillard had come from the Socialist Forum and the ‘Left’ of the Labor Party; yet her election was managed by a group of Right-wing operators, many of them very close to reactionary forces. In modern times, distinctions between Right and Left have no longer any meaning. ‘Right’ used to mean – broadly speaking – supporting capitalism and opposing any move to socialism. That much is still true, but ‘Left’ used to mean the opposite, i.e. overcoming capitalism and moving towards socialism. That has not been true of the ‘Left’ of the Labor Party for quite some time – make it forty years..
In addition, Ms. Gillard demonstrated in her role as Workplace Relations Minister that she was able to put aside her ‘Left’ credentials and push the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda with the best of them. Before the 2007 election she was clear about keeping a ‘tough cop on the beat’ of the building and construction industry. She was also intransigent in dealing with public school teachers in their campaign against the publication of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy, NAPLAN – testing results in reading, writing, language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation) and numeracy – on the My School website, the league tables which followed and the overall privatising agenda of the government.
Part of the Gillard Government’s agenda became increasingly to inflict the burden of the financial crisis onto the backs of working people: this in large part would have been used to deliver the government’s stated objective of a budget surplus in 2013. This would also have meant a growing offensive against workers and their unions.
Most of the anti-union provisions established under the Howard Government’s WorkChoices were retained under the renamed Fair Work Australia. The purpose-built anti-union A.B.C.C. was still in place. The widening of its powers to include the policing of unions in industries other than construction, and the beefing up of existing anti-union laws, were options on the government’s table. Only the Australian Workers’ Union, the Right-wing manipulators of which delivered Gillard her position, would have been excluded from this offensive.
In 2013 the Fair Work Commission commenced initial inquiries into allegations of improper union financial conduct, and the Opposition Liberal-National Coalition promised a judicial inquiry into the Australian Workers Union affair, which involved allegations of misappropriation of funds by officials of the Australian Workers Union. Craig Thomson, a Federal Labor MP, and Michael Williamson, a former President of the Labor Party, were facing fraud allegations in relation to their financial dealings as officials of the Health Services Union (both men were later convicted of fraud).
In December 2013 the Fairfax press reported that the newly elected Abbott Government would call a Royal Commission into trade union slush funds, “less than a fortnight after a Fairfax Media investigation uncovered millions of dollars in a string of secret union slush funds. The series of Fairfax reports revealed the involvement of the N.S.W. Right’s powerful Transport Workers Union in a $ 500,000 takeover of its own Queensland branch with the backing of the disgraced former H.S.U. leader Michael Williamson. It also reported the possible unlawful misuse of union and parliamentary staff by senior union officials and Labor figures.”
On 10 February 2014 Prime Minister Abbott announced the establishment of the Royal Commission into trade union governance and corruption to inquire into alleged financial irregularities associated with the affairs of trade unions. The Honourable Dyson Heydon, AC QC, a former High Court judge, was nominated as Commissioner. The Australian Workers Union, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Electrical Trades Union, Health Services Union and the Transport Workers Union were named in the terms of reference. The Royal Commission inquired into the activities relating to so-called slush funds and other similar funds and entities established by, or related to, the affairs of these organisations. (Prime Minister Abbott announced the Royal Commission on 10 February 2014 and decided that the Commission be overseen by a sole Royal Commissioner. (‘Prime Minister Tony Abbott announces royal commission to “shine spotlight” on alleged union corruption’).
Letters Patent were issued on 13 March 2014. The Commissioner submitted an Interim Report in December 2014, which found cases of “wilful defiance of the law” and recommended criminal charges against certain unionists. Allegations of illegality against nine unions had been uncovered, with over 50 potential breaches of criminal and civil law identified.
Following an extension, the Commissioner presented his final report to the Governor-General in December 2015, finding “widespread and deep-seated” misconduct by union officials in Australia. More than forty people and organisations were referred to authorities, including police, Directors of Public Prosecutions, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Fair Work Commission, and a recommendation for the establishment of an independent body to investigate union records and finances was made.
As at the end of April 2016 only one conviction has been attained, while five other union officials have either had their charges dropped, or were found not guilty.
Tomorrow: Testing the thesis (continued) . . . Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts
* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra. He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.
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