EDITORIAL: Ominous evidence on unions

WHEN the Abbott Coalition government set up its Royal Commission into trade union governance, some labelled it as no more than an ideological stunt.
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It was suggested that the Coalition was simply looking for another way to discredit trade unions as part of its presumed interest in breaking down and deregulating working conditions.

If anybody still believes that, they are keeping their mouths shut and their heads down, as sensational evidence alleges involvement between organised crime and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union.

It is being alleged that union officials accepted regular ‘‘bribes’’ from criminals, that outlaw motorcycle gangs infiltrated the union and that threats and intimidation were commonly used by union leaders and their business associates to silence protests and shut down whistleblowers.

Last month, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana said police were probing organised crime links and allegations of blackmail and extortion within the union.

The union denies illegal conduct, saying its interests are purely the protection of workers’ rights and safety.

But now as many as five union officials have moved to disassociate themselves from the CFMEU’s senior leadership, alleging bullying, intimidation and pressure to participate in illegal activities.

Recent years have been bad ones for the trade union movement, with the actions and alleged actions of some salaried officials threatening to bring the entire institution into disrepute.

This is problematic for union members who have relied on their industrial organisations to do the heavy lifting for them in wage negotiations.

Every proven instance of union misconduct makes it easier for the enemies of unionism to achieve their goal of undermining the institution, and the harder those in charge of the trade union structure fight to preserve their comfortable status quo without addressing the emerging concerns, the worse the problem gets.

Unions exist because circumstance arose in the past that made their existence necessary. Their birth was troubled, and accompanied by often-ferocious battles between activists and employer groups.

For many decades their presence has been taken for granted in Australia, and although their power has been steadily eroded, their influence is still significant in industrial relations and in politics.

If trade unions permit themselves to be discredited because of their behaviour, some officials will no doubt pay a penalty.

But that penalty may pale into insignificance alongside the price that will almost certainly be paid by ordinary union members who stand to lose some of the valuable advocacy and protection that industrial organisations provide.