05/12/2013 - 12:20

Unions stuck in a political past

05/12/2013 - 12:20


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Not only does the labour movement need to modernise, it must acknowledge past misdemeanours.

SERENITY: Modern and largely automated, Australia’s ports are rarely the centre of strike action as they used to be, even during WWII. Photo: Jemma Howard

As a young fellow with a father active on the conservative side of politics, I grew up on a steady diet of union bashing.

Determined to make my own way in life I was fairly neutral on the subject, and after becoming a journalist I was even a member of the various union bodies that covered the sector during part of the 1990s.

My dad would not have been surprised. He reckoned all journalists were left-wingers anyway.

Of course, it is difficult to be a business journalist and maintain any fondness for unions. It is even harder when you become a manager as well and develop a more sympathetic view on the employer’s position on issues ranging from unfair dismissal laws to the more damaging aspects of industrial relations militancy.

As a business journalist, of course, you also get to hear to most outrageous stories of extortion and outright criminality that tend to emanate from certain unions.

Recent revelations about corruption in the Health Services Union have highlighted that there are real problems with these opaque organisations that claim to represent employees; and it is time something was done about it.

My view is that we have an acceptable array of tools to reduce or even end much of the corrupt and criminal practices in some powerful unions – if the political will was there.

A little bit of transparency and competition would do wonders for the union movement, making union leaders accountable to their members both through full disclosure of their activity and the possibility that someone else might be able to do a better job.

Also, I might add, a real history of unions could help put some perspective on this relatively small, protected and largely invisible clique that dominates one side of political power in Australia.

For instance, when the union movement makes much noise on about protecting the nation’s interest, it would be worth exploring the track record of some key players in the sector.

How widely is it known, say, that stevedoring union the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) actively inhibited the Australian and US armed forces during WWII through a concerted series of strikes, inefficient operations, expensive claims, damage and theft that angered many servicemen at the time.

I have recently read Australia’s Secret War: How Unions Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II by Perth author Hal Colebatch, who outlines a litany of disgraceful activity and documents the thousands of strikes that took place on Australia’s wharves and coal mines at a time when the nation was threatened with invasion.

Mr Colebatch’s work is not entirely scholarly or even a riveting read from beginning to end, but many pages of personal accounts from former soldiers, other servicemen and even women brought into factories for the war effort provides plenty of evidence of union-led treachery it made me quite angry at times.

While much of the book highlights things that were political in nature, given the high level of communist infiltration of the wharfies’ leadership and their then alignment with the Soviet Union, it did not ignore the ongoing criminal activity that has long been part of stevedoring.

The strength of the work is the personal and angry tales sent to Mr Colebatch by servicemen decades after the war when he advertised for such accounts to verify rumours he heard. Their bitterness had not been dulled by time.

Perhaps the most poignant account was from a serviceman who was stuck in Gage Roads off Fremantle by a strike. Unable to get ashore to post a letter, thousands soldiers on board were buoyed by a union offer to take the letters and post them, for just the price of a stamp.

It took a very long time indeed for the men to discover that they had been duped, their money stolen and the letters never delivered. Where is that morale-sapping theft in the annals of union history?

There are plenty of stories that had more potentially deadly outcomes than that.

Mr Colebatch, of course, is critical of the Labor Party of the time, especially in government under John Curtin, for failing to curtail this activity.

One friend of mine, who knows a bit of industrial relations history, suggested that a lot activity here was overlooked because, internationally, the union movement was seen as an ally in a war that relied on global transport links and were even more active saboteurs in enemy countries such as Germany (where there was a great deal more risk of government reaction). 

Having just finished this book I was struck to read a letter with some suddenly familiar content in The Australian newspaper by former Vietnam veteran Colin Toll of Clifton Beach, Queensland, who complained about former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s words being enshrined at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Solider in Canberra.

“Keating was a Labor MP in 1969 when his party, through its trade unions, black-banned our Vietnam resupply ship causing difficulties for us, banned the delivery of Diggers’ mail to and from Vietnam and raised money for North Vietnam to finance the war against us,” Mr Toll wrote.  

Oddly, to my knowledge, this element of union history seems unreported.

Ironically, the Maritime Union of Australia, which was formed when the WWF merged with the Seamen’s Union of Australia in the 1990s, seems proud of its communist history. Its website boasts a recent study of   Rupert Lockwood, which it said was “one of the best known members of the Communist Party of Australia” between 1939 and 1969 and a central figure in the Royal Commission on Espionage.

It is hard to find anyone in Australia these days who thinks communism is a good idea.

Back in the 1930s, times were different and Australia was part of a long and titanic struggle that was not won until the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980s.

Many of those who championed communism either overtly or covertly have played a big role in shaping the union movement through some of its most powerful member organisations. While I have focused on what I believe are treacherous activities of well over half a century ago, much of the ideology of the people involved remained within some unions until recent times.

Anyone in business knows that the culture of an organisation is hard to change, especially one that is entrenched in dogma that has been around for decades.

If unions want to truly represent their members they ought to update themselves and join the rest of Australia with fully transparent accounts (including all associated reserves), open themselves up for competition from rivals (rather than having infighting over control of monopolies) and revise their own historical view of themselves as champions of Australia’s working people.


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