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‘Thugs and thieves’: unionists or bankers?

INmany parts of the world constituted by Australian trade union officials, there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts.
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So says Dyson Heydon in volume one of his six-volume final report ending the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

Five volumes are published: a sixth, whichHeydon says deals with “threats to witnesses”, is “confidential” to protect the well-being of witnesses and their families.

Heydon says: “This isunfortunate,because the confidential volume revealsgrave threats to the power and authority of the Australian state.”

For the time being, though, we can only deal with the material in front of us, which shows snouts at the trough in six big unions, a situation thatHeydon calls“the small tip of an enormous iceberg”.

As someone who has paid union dues for 30 years,I am as annoyed as the next memberover the way that some officials have used union coffers asa personal piggy bank.

But the first thing that I would note is that such self-serving behaviour exists at all levels of society. As Griffith University academics Jacqueline and Michael Drew point out, the global financial crisis exposed “the single largest episode of financecrime and financial fraud in generations”.

The royal commission found union officials buying cars and going on shopping sprees on the union credit card.

Such behaviour would not have beena footnote in a roll call of recent corporate crime. The federal government says investment fraud in Australia cost more than $110 million between 2007 and 2012, while the GFC created global losses of up to $15 trillion (That’s $15,000 billion).

The second thing to note is that for all of the union movement’s failings, there is no argument thatthe working conditions enjoyed by millions of Australians are the result of hard-fought battles by militant unions, especially the predecessors ofthe Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Maritime Union of Australia.

All sorts of conditions, from the eight-hour day, to overtime penalty rates, long-service leave and superannuation, were won forworking people by unions.

Unions which, in the great Australian tradition, refusedto tug the forelock to the bosses and the conservative political parties thatare still determined, a century on, to keep the workers under their heel.

None of this excuses what Heydon exposedbut I do wonder how mucha man of his background –a diplomat’s son, who went from Sydney Church of England Grammar toSydney Uni and on to Oxford with a Rhodes Scholarship –would know about life at the hard manual end of the food chain.

Volume five of Heydon’s report looks at the history of union regulation, andproposes “model legislation” to keep unions, and union officials, in order.

There is one simple way to achieve Heydon’s aims: all it would take isa fully fundededucation system givingequal opportunity to every student, regardless of their family’s means, together witha business sector that did not exploit workers, but rewardedthem, through profit shares, for their role in a company’s success.Unfortunately, however, I think there’s about as much chance of that happening as there is of Wall Street and its global doppelgangersbecoming suddenly honest.

In the meantime, unions, and their political wing, the Australian Labor Party, are as important to us as ever.

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