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Ensuring Integrity Bill takes union busting to a whole new level

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Workers' rights and conditions will be weakened with the passing of the Ensuring Integrity Bill (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Coalition has once again attacked unions and the rights of workers by passing the Ensuring Integrity Bill in Parliament, writes Matt Hrkac.

THE MORRISON GOVERNMENT, emboldened by what was deemed to be an unexpected election win in May, as well as the controversy surrounding the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU) Construction and General Division Secretary John Setka, has recently reintroduced the union-busting (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill into Parliament. It represents the biggest attack against unions and workers' rights and conditions since WorkChoices, introduced in 2006 by the Federal Government led by John Howard.

This same Bill was rightly knocked dead in the previous term thanks to a Senate crossbench, amenable to the rights of unions to exist, holding the balance of power. However, following the 18 May Federal Election, the Senate is a lot more friendly to pro-business and anti-union, anti-worker interests. The Ensuring Integrity legislation was introduced to the House of Representatives, where it passed. While this was to be expected, it is noteworthy that Centre Alliance’s MP for the seat of Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, voted in favour of the Bill. This is because Centre Alliance hold two Senate seats.

Now, the Bill is before the Senate. With both Labor and the Greens set to vote against the legislation when it finally comes to a vote, the Government needs three other crossbenchers to vote for it in order for it to pass. One Nation, consisting of two Senators, is likely to vote in favour of it (though they do tend to change their positions at a drop of a hat), while the two Centre Alliance Senators, who are more consistent, may yet reach a decision to vote against it despite the party voting for it in the House of Representatives. 

Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, who has yet to take a formal position on the legislation, will likely be the deciding vote. Although back in July, Lambie told the Australian Financial Review that “it’s no secret” she has issues concerning the behaviour of “certain members of the trade union movement” (which can be taken to be in reference to Setka) and that Setka’s refusal to stand down from his position in the CFMMEU would ultimately influence her final position.

Why this legislation is bad news

Unions are already tightly regulated and have been increasingly so since the election of the current Coalition Government into office in 2013. Although the Howard Government’s WorkChoices would be wound back by the Rudd Government following its election in 2007, it was only ever largely a cosmetic change, paving the way for the current Government to ramp up its union-busting agenda to increasingly startling heights.

It is difficult for unions to initiate industrial action; for example, having to jump through numerous complex regulatory hoops and the right to strike is non-existent. The ability to organise on workplaces is also highly regulated. Failure to follow these regulations to the letter can result in hefty fines for both individual union officials as well as for the union itself.

The Ensuring Integrity Bill goes beyond “holding to account” what the Government describes as “rogue” union officials. Not only will the ability for union members to democratically determine who leads their union be curtailed, but the union’s ability to organise and campaign around workplace issues and bargaining will be severely hit hard.

The clauses contained within the legislation are so broad that it’s almost breathtaking. Of particular concern is what the legislation cites as ‘a person of significant interest’. A person of significant interest who has issue with the behaviour of a union would be able to apply to the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) to have disciplinary action taken against that union. Disciplinary actions that can be imposed on unions include the dismissing of union officials, placing the union into administration, restricting what a union can do with its own funds and resources and altering a union’s eligibility rules around what occupations and workplaces it has coverage over.

A person of interest in this context is incredibly wide-ranging. It can include anyone from the Federal Government right down to workplace managers who deal directly with union officials through bargaining and other workplace matters of concern to employees.

Currently, if a union has issues with a proposed workplace Agreement, that union can apply to run a ballot and then run a workplace campaign to encourage employees that the proposed Agreement would cover to vote no in the ballot, sending it back to bargaining. 

Under the Ensuring Integrity legislation, an employer, with the pretence of feeling that the union they’re dealing with is being unreasonable, can apply to the ROC to prevent that union from using its resources to campaign for a “no” vote, or they can request that the specific union’s coverage rules be altered so as to exclude the employees of a workplace that a proposed Agreement would cover from union coverage, thus locking the union out of bargaining negotiations.

At best (for unions, that is), it wastes their time and resources going through the ROC and the courts to argue against employers and others who make applications against them. At worst, an ideologically-driven Government or a group of employers or other parties of significant interest would be able to effectively regulate specific unions to the point where they can’t even advocate for or communicate with their members, effectively regulating them out of existence.

It is no secret that big corporations, conservative governments, “free market” ideologies and their fellow travellers have sought to undermine, weaken and destroy the trade union movement in Australia along with the working rights and conditions fought long and hard for — and they have been increasingly blatant about this goal. These same vested interests will be heaping massive pressure on the crossbench Senators to ensure that they vote to pass the Ensuring Integrity legislation.

A trade union movement weakened further will leave wages and working conditions at the mercy of big corporations, putting workers in greater physical danger, particularly those who work in naturally hazardous occupations such as the construction industry where worksite safety is paramount and where unions are a major driver in ensuring safe workplaces.

What’s more, this legislation is not retrospective. What’s apparently good for regulating the activities of unions is not good for regulating the dodgy behaviour of corporations and big business, the banks and other related groups.

The only place where the Ensuring Integrity legislation belongs is in the legislative graveyard and it should never see the light of day. If it does see life, however, then unions need to band together and coordinate the biggest industrial campaign the country has ever seen with the express goals of both throwing the Morrison Government out of office come the next election, as well as between now and then promoting a clear, coherent set of demands: restore the right to strike, abolish the ROC, restore penalty rates, raise the minimum wage to a living wage and retrospectively reverse all anti-union legislation.

Matt Hrkac is a freelance writer from Geelong. He has particular interests in politics, elections, social movements and the trade union movement.

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