The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption continued last week in Canberra. The media attention it has received (vastly overshadowed by the Speaker of the House saying ‘Sorry Not Sorry’ and a debate if booing an Indigenous man for displaying pride in Indigenous culture is racist or not) has focused on three related arrests. These arrests need to be separated out. Tuungafasi Manase and Fihi Kivalu have been arrested for a matter of personal criminal corruption. John Lomax on the other hand has been arrested for simply being a successful union official:
Police will allege that Lomax forced a Canberra painter to sign a union enterprise bargaining agreement in April last year.
The owner believed he would be blocked from working in the ACT and NSW if he did not sign.
It is understood police will allege the owner suffered a financial loss as a result because he had to pay his workers $26 an hour when he could have paid as low as $17. (Inman 2015)
The vast majority of the examination last week has been obsessed with what, to an outsider like me, seems fairly innocuous questions of negotiating Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) in Canberra – especially relating to scaffolding. There have been moments of excitement such as when Elias Taleb claimed to have recordings of meetings with officials which were hidden in one of his many safes but he couldn’t remember which and Adam Morison QC has a tendency to launch into large Hayek-esque speeches about competition – these normally involve him yelling the word ‘choice’ a lot. But the real issues is are as follows: did the union as part of fighting for industry wide conditions compel employers to act in a cartel like fashion so they could pay the workers these wages and benefits? And did the union argue for or stipulate that safety training conducted by companies that were owned by the union. As Jim Marr (2015) has argued part of the argument being pursued by the Royal Commission is that safety concerns are something of a beat up. Either unions use them as a pretext to shut down building sites for other reasons and/or safety issues are unavoidable on construction sites and best handled by the boss. All this in an industry where workers are regularly killed or injured in the course of a normal working day.
The Royal Commission is pursuing this argument because it probably can be construed as being illegal and may warrant intervention by the ACCC. Not being a lawyer or someone with any experience of the matters at hand I can’t tell you what is true and what is bullshit. However even if we are to assume that everything that the Council Assisting, QC Morison and the list of witnesses for capital have argued is true (and in reality it probably isn’t) it is hard to see the scandal here. All it accuses is a union acting consistently to ensure pay and conditions of an equal standard for all workers in an industry that is organised through a mesh of contractors and sub-contractors and to ensure best practice safety training and the provision of income insurance in an industry that has a significant level of danger. If this is criminal then effective unionism is criminal. This is not a rhetorical point – it means union officials and members are facing the intervention of the police into their lives for trying to act out in their own interests. It may mean prison.
It is worth keeping in mind that John Nikolic the Master Builders Association ACT industrial relations director works to attempt to coordinate non-union EBAs throughout the ACT. This however is all legal and above board.
So what happens next? The CFMEU has pledged its commitment to stand by John Lomax and of course the strategy it pursues is a question for the union and the members. The ACTU whilst previously condemning the Royal Commission has not said much on the issue; one could speculate that the strategy being pursued by the ACTU leaders and the ALP is a ‘small target’ one. Here in Brisbane a few emails have been circulated around trying to discuss a useful thing to do – but so far we haven’t been able to find a coherent point of orientation. In my workplace there is a small group working at a relatively slow pace to build a minimal level of collectivity and solidarity and we are doing that within the union. I would speculate that it would be hard to translate the attack on the CFMEU into a common concern at my work. I think this is a product of the deeply heterogeneous make up of the working class in Australia, the almost universal prevalence of a ‘middle class’ ideology and identity, the continual degeneration of unions as class institutions since the late 1970s; all as part of the transformation of class composition in Australia.
So far all I have been able to do is to take up the social media conflict. I’m unsure how useful this is. Certainly part of the role of the Royal Commission is to create the justification for further legal attacks on specific unions. Social media plays a role in this; but I suspect some of my time is just being absorbed into arguing with retired liberal supporter salivating for police raids. I would be very interested to hear the experiences others are having trying to build solidarity in a useful and/or coherent way. The Royal Commission continues of Tuesday 4th August in Sydney.
Inman, Michael. 2015. Lomax Charge Puts Australia on Path to Tinpot Dictatorship: Union. Canberra Times [cited 3/08/2015 2015]. Available from http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/lomax-charge-puts-australia-on-path-to-tinpot-dictatorship-union-20150729-gin3yk.html – ixzz3hL3NsBgh.
Marr, Jim. 2015. Chill out – It Is Only Safety. Commission Watch [cited 3rd August 2015]. Available from http://commissionwatch.com.au/chill-safety/.