Thursday, August 20, 2015

On Union Corruption

Josh S.

Ongoing revelations about corruption among union officials undermine the strength and credibility of the union movement, and hand employers and the government golden opportunities to attack and proscribe legitimate union activity.

As if the despicable corruption of former Health Services Union Federal Secretary and Labor politician, Craig Thomson and his misuse of union funds weren't enough, we have had further revelations about Bill Shorten, and about Thomson's accuser, Kathy Jackson.

Jackson has been accused in court by the Health Services Union of using $250,000 of union funds for fine dining, holidays, artwork, cameras, and on her divorce. She has claimed her spending was authorised by the Union's Committee of Management, and was used for union interests.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten is accused of political corruption.

Shorten has admitted that his union (the Australian Workers Union) secretly received $40,000 from an employer, UniBilt, with whom it was negotiating a new Enterprise Agreement.

The money was not intended directly for Shorten and there was no direct evidence of his specifically using this money to employ a campaign manager to run his ALP campaign.  It is nevertheless indicative of tame-cat union duchessing by bosses.

Shorten has since claimed that the donation did not affect the union's negotiations with that employer, and that he has done nothing wrong. As if an employer would handover tens of thousands without some sort of payback such as reducing workers’ conditions!!

The extent to which Labor Party-affiliated union officials and Labor politicians live within a political and moral blind spot was illustrated by Greg Combet's response. He ignored the allegations about Shorten's corruption. Instead, he focused on the Abbott government, claiming that the Royal Commission was merely a political hatchet job on the union movement.

Well, of course it is, and it should be vigorously opposed for that reason – it is designed to prepare the ground for further attacks on the union movement. The arch-reactionary Rogue Commissioner Dyson Heydon and his open ties to the Liberal Party make this quite plain. But it is also true that corruption and bribery of some union officials, and sell out of workers to the bosses, goes on all the time and is deeply ingrained in a few unions.  The ruling class and bosses actively encourage and nurture bribery and corruption to buy their puppet officials and sell out the workers. The behaviour of such officials is corrupt, it undermines the credibility and effectiveness of unions, and it hands the government credible justification of its intent to attack the unions.

The fact that Combet either can't see this or chooses to ignore it merely shows how myopically Labor politicians see everything through the prism of ALP self-interest, and have lost the ability or willingness to see or face the truth.

Types of Corruption

There are various forms of corruption among some union officials.

Some engage in straight out misappropriation of funds; they use union money to directly fund their lavish lifestyle – travel, accommodation, meals etc. Some receive bribes or payments from employers as recently admitted by a CFMEU official. Some, such as those exposed in the HSU, employ family members at exorbitant salaries, and award themselves and their families contracts for union services like publication of the union journal.

Others just live very well as a union official. They receive a very high salary – well above anything like their members could earn. For example, Jackson was paid $170,000 per year as Federal Secretary and at the same time, an additional $60,000 by the Victorian State Branch. They have union cars, and also travel whenever and wherever they wish, enjoying top accommodation and meals. They are frequently duchessed by employers – flattered, invited to dinners, conferences, consultations, all to bring them into the social and political orbit of the ruling structure, and blunt their militancy and contact with their memberships.

Most union officials without political ambitions are honest, hard-working and dedicated, but the bosses will use all means necessary to control union officials.

Even honest and well-intentioned officials can slide into blurring the line between the personal and the professional. They become used to having and using a union credit card, become careless in how and on what they spend union money. “What does it matter that I spend a little union money on this or that”, “I'll just use the card to buy this”.

Officials who occupy a position for a long time can develop a sense of entitlement, thinking consciously or sub-consciously - “I've worked for this union for a long time. It owes me”. They often fear falling back to a lower income; they fear returning to the workplace and the regular, possibly monotonous, grind. Some worry whether they could even cope.

The other dimension is political corruption, as in the Shorten case.

Some union hierarchies are completely tied to the ALP, like the Shop Assistants Union. The top officials regard the union as a vehicle to exert influence in the ALP and as a means to forge career paths into parliamentary politics. This personal careerism hobbles the union movement as effectively, or more effectively, than financial corruption. It is less obvious, and more pervasive and crippling, as it avoids and scotches struggle and militancy by members, undermining the union's strength.

Often, unions campaign and struggle quite vigorously against Labor Governments as employers, or challenge a Labor government as it manages the capitalist system which obviously is loaded toward employers. However, come election time, many leaders fall into line and go quiet, fearing a Liberal victory.

The operation of unions within the legal structure of a capitalist system is a difficult and complex problem and officials can succumb, either willingly or without intending or even noticing, to thinking, functioning and living within the system.  Although they exist to be the basic organisations for the defence of the interests of the working class, unions are also bound in a thousand and one ways to capitalism through the institutions they work in, the legal structures and rules by which they are bound, the properties they own and the investments they have. This creates a being, a set of social circumstances that create what we have called the ideology of trade unionism.  It is not a revolutionary ideology but one that accepts the permanence of capitalism and therefore limits the boundaries of trade union activity to those acceptable to, and accepting of, capitalism.  A preoccupation with “proper legal channels” and fear of fines, jail terms and deregistration is common. 

What to do

Union members of all persuasions can strive for standards and measures that limit the scope for corruption and malpractice, including:

·         The union rank-and-file need to control their union.  The union structure needs to enable member control. Contrast this with the HSU where the HSUeast branch was structured to virtually prevent members from ever controlling their own union branch.  Too many delegates committees and activist structures have been let go and must be revived to serve as the front line of organised labour and the first point of contact between the union and its members.  E-newsletters and SMS contact have their place but must not replace member-controlled democratic structures.

·         Union officials need to have and maintain a strong ideology about the value and importance of strong unions, and a clear ethical consciousness about the sanctity of their role as representatives of their members. Each official needs to maintain very strong personal vigilance about their own role and conduct, and be wary of slipping and sliding into loose use of funds in any form, or developing a sense of personal entitlement.  Our late great comrade John Cummins stared down the threat of a jail sentence to tell a bosses’ court: “As a matter of conscience I have to reserve my right to serve my members.”  That “right” was the only personal entitlement sought by Cummins, and it still inspires union officials who remain loyal to their class.

·         Limited terms for officials would interrupt and minimise such slippage. The longer officials maintain their positions, the more likely they are to lose contact with the realities of their members' lives and become used to a fast, high life.   No official should fear lead responsibilities being rotated among honest, militant working class leaders.  A return to the workplace every now and then should become an accepted part of the career of a union official.

·         Officials’ wages and conditions should reflect those of their members. There are still some unions, mainly blue collar unions, that can’t afford high salaries and where officials brought in from the workplace actually take large pay cuts to become an official.  In other unions, the reverse is the case.  They recruit economists and lawyers who will not work for less than a professional salary, and their elected officials fear going back into the workplace. The argument that their work is more important or the skills needed are higher, and therefore they should be paid large salaries should be rejected, as it provides fertile ground for softness and corruption.  Unions are not businesses or corporations and don’t require wannabe Chief Executives on high salaries desperate to accrue property and assets for the union so that their salaries can be guaranteed.

And unions should be politically independent; they should not be affiliated to any political party, and should openly espouse their role as fearless agitators only for the interests of their members and of the working class.

For previous comments on this issue see:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hutchison lockout Sydney: it's not over yet!

Louisa L.

The Hutchison port strike in Sydney and Brisbane which began with the sacking of 97 workers by late night email and text message on Thursday, August 7, has become a lockout, despite a Federal court ruling that the sackings be postponed.

The enormous and growing support for the sacked workers has shocked those used to flexing their corporate muscle with impunity. The Hutchison workers' stand has breathed power to those who've watched as workers have been sacked and people's services destroyed nationwide.

This clip tells the story of the sacked workers eloquently:

They just get up and do it

The giant corporations who run Australia don't like it. They don't like it at all.

The first day after the sackings, those at Port Botany were unprepared, some with light jumpers to keep out the night's bitter winds, but soon they were more organised, with fires and outdoor gas heaters, toilets, BBQ area and bucket to collect support money.
People seem to arrive non-stop. As some leave, others take their place. Everyone who turns up is personally thanked.

A retired AMWU member is one of many who has lent their support. He'd turned up at the 1998 Patrick dispute, despite not knowing anyone because, he said, “I knew that if they could crush the MUA, they could crush any union.” And he was back again, just as determined.

Jenny, a nurse who also supported the 1998 Patrick's dispute turns up regularly, bringing Picket-Line Dog, a Maltese terrior who's won hearts on the line. His name? Cupid, of course. “People have to realise,” she said, “if they attack one person, they attack all of us.”

A load of soft drinks arrived. As ten people headed over the carry the cartons, she pointed to them, “See, they're workers. They just get up and do it. They see a job and pitch in. No one has to tell them.”

They face the biggest port operator in the world, a foreign multinational tax dodger of gigantic proportions which made $11 billion last year. Doug Cameron exposed them in a blistering speech to the Senate last week:

A job is a right, not a privilege

It's clear what workers are up against, and union after union is rostered on to cover particular shifts.

The United Services Union got in early and took their executive and staff to the picket line on Friday 8th , while retired MUA members from Newcastle made the five hour round trip on Tuesday 11th, after a weekend of large support gatherings, including a Sunday Funday for kids and families.

By Wednesday, the picket's size had more than doubled from its first day.

Maxine Sharkey read a message of support, this time from the NSW Teachers Federation. She told the workers, “You have a right to a job. It's not a privilege or luxury. You should be treated with dignity and respect, even if your work simply makes a rich person richer.

“TAFE teachers can empathise, because we've lost two and a half thousand teachers and support staff in the last three years.”

The workers gasped at her words. While she expressed a desire to learn from the picketers, because the MUA has been dealing with Fair Work Australia for longer than the Teachers Federation, that learning is a two way street.

All this causes the ruling class great unease, and it didn't stop on Wednesday.

A week after the sackings, Unions NSW held their meeting at Port Botany. After work the Inner City and Eastern Suburbs Teachers Associations, of rank and file teachers, also met at the windswept port entrance.

State Labor MPs Trish Doyle and Yasmin Catley were not deterred by the howling, icy winds, of one of Sydney's coldest nights. The Senate passed a motion of support. Mayors did their shifts.

The Federal Court decision registered the growing strength of the fight. Real people with real families, fighting for their jobs, their Facebook slogan, were becoming too dangerous for the ruling class, even inspiring a new song:

Urgent: support required!

On Friday 14th, the day the workers were due to clock on, young people strummed guitars and women with strollers listened as CFMEU delegates held their monthly meeting.

Hundreds had gathered, including the Aboriginal tent embassy mob and Ged Kearney, President of the ACTU. But the victory text message that detailed the celebration was a little too prescient: “It's not over yet,” it concluded.

At 2pm a guard of honour clapped the workers back onto the dock. Supporters departed, leaving around 25 people. But it was clear things were not as they'd been presented, when security, police and media vans arrived at 3.30pm.

At 3.45pm, another text message went out: “URGENT: support required at port botany community assembly. Problems with workers being allowed back, police and security back.”

The maintenance crew of three, all strong rank and file leaders, who check safety before each shift, had been refused entry.

“Your name isn't on the list,” each was told.

Backward march, but not by the workers

The other workers were already inside, so they elected their delegate as they do at the beginning of each shift. Conversations immediately began between those inside and those outside.

“It was brilliant,” said ex-Unions ACT head, Kim Sattler. “People are people, and they have relationships with each other, and they weren't going to cop harassment.”

Those beyond the gate followed union instructions to stop more people being sacked. Besides, no real work was going on, no cranes moved, no ships were ready to be loaded.

The security guards, mostly young people, were completely inexperienced. They were forced to retreat backwards by a reformed crowd of hundreds, until they gave up and marched alongside the picketers, a kilometre to the employment office. The protesters banged on the door.

MUA organisers and workers demanded to be let in. They had a legal right to entry, now backed by the Federal Court decision.

“We don't know about that,” replied the police, a stock comment now used Australia-wide to circumvent legal rights won in hard struggle. Riot police arrived, but shocked as people flooded back in response to the emergency text message, mostly stayed put in their vans.

A fire burns

It's still a stand-off at the port, with the picket as strong as ever.

This little spark might yet start a bushfire, amongst people who are sick of feeling powerless in the face of a ruling class determined to snuff out any embers of resistance.

Anyone can play at text messages. Hutchison's absentee overlords have fiddled with fire in those late night sackings. Now the smell of its dirty deeds exposed floats like smoke above the forty gallon drums, where the picketers warm themselves and empower us all.

It's not over yet! No by a long shot.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Jimmy O'Connor: Construction workers stand by union organiser

Nick G.

More than 200 Adelaide construction workers defied the rogue regulator, the Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC) Inspectorate by walking off the job on Thursday August 13.

They were supporting CFMEU official Jimmy O’Connor who had to appear in the Federal Court for sentencing submissions relating to a contempt of court charge for which he had been found guilty.

In serving the interests of the members of his union, O’Connor has had to stand tall in the face of legislation designed to crush construction unions.

Industrial legislation generally has stripped workers of most of the bargaining strength they once enjoyed, but the special laws relating to the construction industry are something else again.

O’Connor was barred by the Federal Court on March 25, 2014 from entering the New Royal Adelaide Hospital (NRAH) site unless he was “lawfully exercising his rights” which severely restricted his access and the business he was entitled to discuss with members.  This order originated in action Jimmy took to defend members at another site.

In the meantime, a builder from interstate who was working on the NRAH site was found to have employed a whole lot of s457 workers despite having given the CFMEU an earlier assurance that he would employ appropriately skilled locals.

On 13 May 2014 O’Connor exercised his rights to enter the NRAH site to hold discussions with CFMEU members, in the course of which he confronted the rogue subcontractor about the broken promise to employ local workers.  He demanded that an unemployed member, Jason Clarke, who had the required skill set, be employed as per the previous undertaking.

The FWBC alleged that this constituted an “unlawful demand” and launched proceedings against him in the Federal Court.

O’Connor, who every decent worker will laud to the skies for doing his job and representing his members, was found guilty.

If this is justice, then it is the class “justice” of the capitalists whose control of the institutions of the state permit them to persecute and prosecute union leaders who are merely doing ordinary everyday union work.

The hundreds of workers who came off jobs to support Jimmy could themselves face action by the FWBC.  Company logos on work gear were covered over to protect their employers and sub-contractors who can themselves be prosecuted by the FWBC for not informing on workers who take industrial action.

A guard of honour was formed the cheer Jimmy on as he made his way to the Federal court, pausing with his family in front of a Spirit of Eureka banner displaying the great oath of 1854: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other to defend our rights and liberties”.

The Federal Court has fined Jimmy O'Connor $12,000 plus the FWBC's "reasonable costs" which exceeded $100,000.

All of the FWBC's costs are entirely "unreasonable": it has persecuted a bloke for trying to get a rogue builder to stick to its promises to employ Australian workers.

We say "Smash the FWBC"!

We need more Jimmy O'Connors who just do what needs to be done - no grandstanding, no attention-seeking, just head high and doing what's right for the workers.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gutless suburban councillors no match for feisty locals

(Above: Turning the first sod) 

By Louisa L.

A construction site around a disused public swimming pool isn't the usual place for a victory celebration.

Many Sydney-siders have never heard of Bexley, where fifty locals, councillors and workers gathered in late July. It's no hub of sedition, just a quiet, multicultural suburb a little southwest of Botany Bay and the airport. 

But it does have a history of struggle. Whether it's on Bediagal or Bidjigal land is uncertain, because the Cooks River, the Botany Swamps and the sandstone ridges of Rockdale meant invaders didn't settle it in any numbers till the 1880s, well after smallpox decimated its people.  

(Above: The only known picture of resistance leader Pemulwuy See

One thing is certain,  Pemulwuy, who led Australia's first battles for independence, ranged through the area. In 1790 he fatally speared Governor Phillip's rapist gamekeeper on the lowlands just two kilometres away, sparking the first British search and destroy mission in Australia, a complete failure. In nearby Undercliff the handprints of the first people cover the walls and roof of a rock shelter. 

The seven year saga that began in 2009 in Bexley has neither the enormous import, heroism nor suffering of the struggle led by Pemulwuy, but it brought together an 88 year old woman swimming two kilometres for charity, death threats, a parish priest, loads of locals, a solid group of councillors and finally Water Polo Australia and Swimming NSW in perhaps the world's only struggle symbolised by swimming goggles.

Goggles on!

When users of Rockdale Council-owned Bexley Swimming Centre won year round swimming in 2009, they felt empowered, but had no idea what lay ahead. 

The 40 year old pool, along with 20 thousand litres of water a day, was leaking money. Under further local pressure, a reference group began to formally discuss proposals for a bigger centre. The first report in February 2011 saw around 30 goggle wearing pool supporters at Council. Soon the addition of an indoor pool was Council's preferred option. 

Keeping the pool a high priority in an area plagued by rundown assets wasn't easy, especially when some councillors preferred to spend $6 million on a car park for one restaurant, but after more goggle protests, letters and local media coverage, the pool redevelopment was referred to the state government as part of Rockdale's City Plan.

Murky waters

NSW politics has swum in plans that disappear without trace. Keeping this one afloat was strengthened by organising five times more submissions for the Pool Upgrade Proposal than the previous Council record of 300.

Then, in 2012, a hidden campaign to sink the pool suddenly surfaced. 

When several councillors were absent, the Liberal Councillors and a supposed independent unexpectedly voted down the necessary capital expenditure. Key infrastructure supporter, Greens Councillor Lesa de Leau moved recision, but council elections meant months' delay. Ms de Leau, whose ward included the failed car park, was targeted for vitriol and lost her seat. But Mark Hanna, the leader of the pro-pool community, pulled in numerous supporters to ensure his first election.

In October the first of two residents' Facebook pages emerged, and at November's Council meeting  goggle-power defeated delaying tactics. 

Early 2013 saw tenders invited, accompanied by failed attempts to end winter swimming. 

The same nay-sayers tried to stop a new library being built, after 30 years in a temporary building.

Delay piled on delay, with dozens of scientific questions from the Liberals, but by November pool  plans were on display, and in December Ian Thorpe was a special guest at the Mayor's Christmas Dinner.

The DA was lodged in February 2014, with more community action in the lead-up and backing from Water Polo Australia and Swimming NSW. On April 30 residents had last laps before closure, with work due to start in September. 

Meanwhile two pools in neighbouring Canterbury Council, where there had been no organised protests, closed during winter for the first time.

Death threats fail

The Council had a $48 million offer from sale of another poorly utilised car park. This would fully fund all major projects including the library, pool, youth centre and town centre car park, leaving $10 million for other upgrades.

More opposition rose from the slimy depths as the minority councillors boycotted meetings.

Between September and October, five meetings lacked a quorum due to the failure to attend, or early departure of the Liberals and an 'independent'. 

“So this is democracy...? What a disgrace!” stated one of dozens of letters to the local paper.

Even a Labor ex-mayor, Bill Saravinovski, went against his party’s new mayor and councillors to vote for deferment when a quorum was achieved.

A community co-ordinating group was set up in response, with a second Facebook page 'Build Bexley Pool' feeding into a torrent of media.

In November, a seventh meeting was boycotted. By then the $48 million offer had lapsed, with $1.75 million already spent! 

Bernie Sharah of Rockdale told the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘‘Attending council meetings is a minimum requirement of their jobs, so if they are not attending, they need to explain why.’’ 

The boycott was spiced with death threats to Councillors supporting the projects.

Daily democracy

Enough was enough. A snap rally outside Rockdale Town Hall on November 8 drew 70 people, with just one day's notice.

ABC's 7.30 NSW in late November had Liberal Councillor Poulos running down alleyways like a petty crim to escape a female reporter, who shouted questions in his wake. HILARIOUS!

Soon after, a Sunday rally brought over 300 people to the entrance of the closed pool. Local parish priest, Father Brendan Quirk who addressed the rally symbolised the struggle's breadth.

(Above: Mayor Shane O'Brien wins fans among the local kids with Mark Hanna in background)

Mayor Shane O'Brien's words invoked the power of the people, “This is absolutely about politics! This is about the behaviour of your elected representatives. It is about whether you read a brochure every four years, vote for people in good faith and after that leave them to their own devices to either break their promises or uphold their promises!"

He called them to “become participants in democracy every day of the week.”  Clearly further protests would be far bigger. 

Swimming to victory

The boycotters finally got the message, and on December 3 (incidentally the Eureka Stockade 160th anniversary) an amended project was passed. All the projects have started, with the delaying tactics costing residents millions.

There's no doubt the pool area would have been a property developer's dream. But it remains in public hands. The victory celebration brought together the key activists and the workers who are to build the centre.

Small victories are important. They bolster people's spirits, give a taste of power in unity. Success requires both protracted community struggle and the good leadership that was so apparent in this battle. 

Pool construction began in July 2015. Locals say Bexley is not as quiet as it used to be, with bulldozers rattling the neighbourhood in the construction zone. But no one is complaining.