19/04/2018 - 09:57

Union of convenience may be a step too far

19/04/2018 - 09:57

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Past overreach on IR and current political realities combined to mute the federal government’s options in terms of the new ‘super union’.

Union of convenience may be a step too far
The waterfront dispute of the late 1990s changed practices at ports nationwide. Photo: Attila Csaszar

It is remarkable that the same hue of government responsible for efforts to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia in the 1998 waterfront dispute has allowed a merger of that organisation with another of the nation’s most thuggish labour groups.

The amalgamation of the MUA and the CFMEU to form the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union has occurred with very little in the way of a real fight in the conservative federal government, despite the threat of this merger to our economy.

While I am on the record as saying that the Liberal-National federal government led by John Howard overcooked its efforts to strangle the union movement with its WorkChoices legislation, which went too far too fast, it had been right during the previous decade to back stevedoring company Patrick’s fight with the rogue MUA.

Even Greg Combet, the then ACTU assistant secretary (later a Labor minister) who rose to national prominence during the dispute, has reportedly stated that the battle dragged the waterfront into the present day, a change that had to happen. It was an archaic system from another century beset with criminality, whereas now it is a much closer approximation of an efficient logistics service befitting a trading nation reliant on exports.

Ironically, the MUA’s direct influence over the key waterfront assets was significantly diminished by that dispute 20 years ago; however, the union has shifted its efforts to shipping, smaller port facilities and infrastructure servicing key industries such as mining and oil and gas.

In concert with the CFMEU, this remains a blight on those sectors’ ability to develop new assets in the north of Western Australia in an efficient manner. Over-confidence created by the boom and distance from meaningful population centres masked many of the negative things that took place, but just because business pays heavily for industrial peace does not make it right.

While thuggery has diminished, it and other questionable tactics have been part of the game plan of both unions that have formed the CFMMEU, as the courts, industrial relations system and anecdotal evidence from executives who bear brunt of this nastiness attest.

How members of these unions put up with things done in their name is difficult to imagine.

No-one suggests that business is perfect. The waterfront and construction sectors are tough places in most parts of the world. The historical lack of skills required for many jobs, and the leverage that can be extracted by bullying and worse in a high value logistics chain, meant that workers’ and bosses’ practices evolved in synergy.

But times have changed and there is no place for people who do and say things that the average person would find appalling (if they knew even half the story).

Allowing a super-union governed by people who have such capacity is disturbing.

In no other sector would such a monopoly-creating merger be allowed, even if all the people involved were the sort you’d invite around for tea with your grandmother.

But the unions have been smart. These unions use their monopolistic industrial muscle to extract high wages, from which they take a big cut. How self-serving is that?

Significant amounts of those funds go to political parties; not just Labor, over which they have great direct influence, but also minor parties such as the Greens.

The cynicism of those transactions is obvious to me, but like many union activities it rarely gets much scrutiny. I find that surprising given the amount of say the minor parties and independents have in our political system.

This brings me back to the failure of the current federal government to stop the union merger, and the two issues that have hamstrung Malcolm Turnbull and his predecessor, Tony Abbott.

One is the problem of those elements of Senate, funded by the very unions they can’t control, and the other is the overreach at the end of the Howard era, which made industrial relations a tricky area for conservative politicians to play in.

Maybe, with this union of unions, we will have seen the labour movement go too far. Perhaps it is time the pendulum swung back in favour of business, rational behaviour and the national interest.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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