Victoria Rollison. The WorkChoices Zombie

Jan 2, 2016

Let’s put aside the irony of a Liberal government, the preacher of the ills of ‘big government’, spending $45 million to reach its expensive Royal Commission tentacles into the operation of trade unions. Let’s put aside the obvious political nature of such a witch-hunt, designed to reduce the power of unions to negotiate on behalf of workers, a seek and destroy mission with the pincer-movement aim of a) benefiting employers at the big end of town, b) reducing unions’ capacity to contribute funds to Labor election campaigns and c) to discredit Labor MPs with union backgrounds. For now, putting these contradictions and political trickery aside, which are so wholly obvious to us but strangely not apparently obvious nor interesting to commentators in the mainstream media, let’s instead look at the Trade Union Royal Commission’s findings in relation to the lives of those people the commission paradoxically claim to represent the interests of; workers.

Using my own situation as a worker and union member as a representative case study, I note with alarm that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has proclaimed the findings of the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) as justification to fight an election over industrial relations. Clearly Turnbull thinks that there is a large enough problem in the trade union movement, a movement just as separate to the operations of government as a private company, that he’s pushing this problem to the top of his government’s agenda. The handful of bogey-man union officials who have been cited in the TURC findings as having acted not in the best interest of workers, are now the government’s enemy number one. As a union member, I don’t like to hear about my union funds being used to fund union officials’ extravagant lifestyles, nor do I appreciate reports of criminal activity, which appear to be almost entirely confined to rogue elements in construction unions. But, as a worker and a member of a young family, a woman, a parent to a young child who has childcare and then her whole education in front of her followed by a job search, a mortgage holder, a South Australian, a buyer of groceries, a daughter of aging parents, a wife to a husband who works in the manufacturing industry and a member of a society experiencing the scary and increasingly apparent effects of climate change, I must admit, the conduct of a few dodgy union officials in industries I don’t work in, whose conduct hasn’t been proven to adversely impact the conditions of workers they represent, is about as high on my list of ‘what is the government doing about this?’ priorities as the fate of Johnny Depp’s girlfriend’s court case over the illegal entry of small dogs.

And even if I did care deeply about the conduct of some dodgy union officials in the construction industry (which I don’t), I care a thousand times more deeply about those union officials having the freedom to do their job to help safeguard the safety of workers on construction sites. I’m pleased there are union officials stopping work when they see risks to workers, because it’s blatantly clear that if the union officials didn’t care, no one would. This is because it’s obvious that many construction employers care far more about the speed of their profit making than they do the safety and wellbeing of their employees. So if it wasn’t for the unions stepping in to insist on safety, far more accidents and deaths would occur. I would have thought a responsible government would be more concerned about safety on construction sites than the isolated actions of a few bad apple unionists. Especially after that very same government were so upset about the deaths of four insulation installers that they held a Royal Commission into a government program that funded the private companies whose unsafe work practices led to the tragic deaths of workers. Another Royal Commission aimed at hurting the Labor Party; do you see a pattern forming here?

I notice a day after the release of the TURC findings, the ABC News Radio poll asking ‘In your experience, are unions riddled with ‘deep-seated’ and ‘widespread’ misconduct?’, after 3,466 votes have been cast, found 74% said ‘no’.

This result suggests I’m not alone in my perception of the TURC findings as more of a political statement than the experience of union members.

As a worker, it would be wholly irrational for me to congratulate, or indeed vote for a government vowing to smash the power of unions. As a worker in an economy with stagnant wage growth, it would be counterproductive for me to encourage my government to give employers, who already hold an elephant-on-a-seesaw-unequal position of power in the Goliath-capital battle with David-the-workers, any more power to define my working conditions. Because let’s face it, not every employer wants to pay the minimum wage, without penalty rates, minimum entitlements and no chance of a pay rise. But enough employers do (take a look at 7-eleven) so that the entire wage structure of the country would be pulled down without unions pushing back against the floodgates. When former PM Tony Abbott said WorkChoices was dead-buried-and-cremated, workers always knew that it would only take a second-term Liberal government 5 minutes to resurrect the WorkChoices zombie from the grave; a zombie who’s bite is fatal to workers’ rights.

Therefore, if Turnbull wants to play this game and if he is really serious that dodgy union officials are the biggest threat facing our country, and his highest agenda item in an election, I echo Bill Shorten’s words on hearing Turnbull’s plans: BRING IT ON. And so say all of us.

Victoria Rollison is a political blogger, working in marketing and communications.

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