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: