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Issue #1874      June 26, 2019

Fascistic

Scene set for union deregistration

Last week Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter announced that he would be prioritising the government’s dishonestly named Ensuring Integrity Bill 2017 which was blocked by the Senate last year. The legislation would make it easy for the courts to deregister militant trade unions and to disqualify trade union officials from holding office.

Photo: Anna Pha

It was no coincidence that the timing of his announcement coincided with an all-out media attack on the Construction and General division of the CFMMEU and its Victorian secretary.

Porter went on the offensive, calling for the deregistration of the union because of its “Olympic standards of unlawfulness.” The bill, he said, would make it easier to deregister the union.

In fact it would make it very easy to deregister the CFMEU or any division or branch of the union. It would also put any other trade union that dared to take industrial action or defend workers’ rights in the firing line. The Maritime Union of Australia could well be next in line for deregistration if the Coalition and employers succeed in deregistering the CFMMEU or any of its branches.

“The ultimate sanction that you have to have against an unlawful organisation is to fairly say that ‘your unlawfulness means that you can’t enjoy all of the rights and benefits of lawful registration’,” Porter said.

But Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil said the laws were an attack against basic democratic freedoms.

“Unions are democratic organisations and attacking them hurts all working people,” she said in a statement on Friday last week. The bill is not industry specific. All trade unions are under threat.

“This law will undermine workplace safety, increase wage and superannuation theft and make it harder for workers to get pay increases and be represented when they need help,” O’Neil said.

“The ACTU and the entire union movement will continue to oppose this legislation and fight against this attack on the rights of all Australians.”

This is far more serious and dangerous for workers and their unions than any previous legislation, its provisions are far more draconian than those in the legislation governing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Most vicious attack

When the Ensuring Integrity Bill first came before Parliament in 2017 the Guardian described it as “the most vicious attack on trade union and workers’ rights ever put before Parliament.

“It is not an exaggeration to describe this bill as fascistic. Its aim is to put the trade union movement out of action by targeting its leadership, leaving workers defenceless and strengthen the hand of employers to accelerate the present roll-back of wages and conditions. It is both political and economic in its aims and objectives.” (See Guardian, #1797, 04-10-2017, “Affront to democracy”)

Under the legislation officials and unions could be taken to court for such acts as attempting to negotiate with employers; protecting their members’ wages and conditions; attempting to meet with their members or recruit new members; and ensuring the safety of workplaces.

The bill states that the Federal Court must cancel the registration of a union on any of the following grounds:

  • Corrupt conduct of officers
  • Two findings against the union for disqualification of officers
  • Multiple findings against a substantial number of members of the organisation or a part of its membership
  • Non-compliance with orders or injunctions or “obstructive” unprotected” industrial action.

There is a catch-all, “not a fit and proper person” clause, that can be used to disqualify a union official. This includes situations where a right of entry permit has been revoked or suspended, or there have been certain criminal or civil findings as well as for “any other matter the Court considers relevant.”

The bill contains retrospective provisions, meaning any trade union could be deregistered for past findings against it.

When announcing the Bill, then Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said of the CFMEU and MUA. “I mean, both of them have shown a long-term disregard for the law,” she said on Melbourne radio 3AW. “They’ve been essentially lawless.

Constant attack

The union has been the constant focus of the government’s industry cop, the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The ABCC constantly hounds construction workers and officials for carrying out legitimate trade union activity.

So far this financial year, the courts have hit the CFMEU with penalties totalling $4.2 million but have failed to break the fighting spirit of the union or its members.

The federal government has promised the ABCC an extra $3.7 million in funding over four years from 2019-20 to assist its policing of the industry. This is on top of the $32.5 million it received in 2017-18.

The union has been fined for taking action over safety on construction sites, for officials attempting to enter workplaces to check safety and meet with members. It has been penalised for attempting to negotiate unpaid superannuation and long service leave entitlements.

At the same time, its members continue to work in unsafe environments. Fatalities and serious injuries are all too common. Union officials face penalties for “crimes” such as breaching right of entry provisions when they do not give the statutory notice following a death on site. Or when workers walk off the job following a death.

Unity

Trade unions and workers are under a savage attack. Working conditions, wages and job security are being eroded, especially for less skilled workers. The only way to halt this decline is to build a strong united trade union movement. Unity is critical.

One of the aims of the flood of the attacks on the CFMEU is to split the union movement. Another is to rid the construction industry of a strong, militant trade union.

Trade unions are independent organisations with their own constitutions and democratic processes. The Communist Party of Australia has long held the view that trade unions should be independent of political parties, adopting policies in the interests of their own members and their families.

This does not mean that they cannot support a particular party in an election campaign, but this should be on the basis of policy and not automatic.

At the moment the priority is to build that unity, to build the trade union movement and unite to defeat the Ensuring Integrity Bill and abolish the ABCC.

For an analysis of the Ensuring Integrity Bill 2017, readers are referred to the Guardian, 23-08-17, #1791, “ORGANISE, AGITATE, EDUCATE.

Next article – Editorial – Journalism is not a crime

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