Union movement trying to fight off HSU disease
There are just 1.83 million members of trade unions in Australia, roughly 18.4 per cent of the national workforce. Take out the heavily unionized public services and the proportion is 13.2 per cent. That means about 1.3 million out of 10 million workers in all areas are employed in private companies and are in trade unions.
It’s these 1.3 million workers - a scrap of the dwindling union membership - that the Opposition will be targeting today with claims that the entire union movement is led by self-indulgent shonks who have been wasting their money and their trust.
There will be indications of this having happened in one trade union, but all will be painted by the Health Services Union brush. The Fair Work Australia report on the Health Services Union has been bouncing around the bureaucracy unloved and unwanted but today will be released to those most eager to embrace its 1100 pages of findings.
The general manager of FWA, Bernadette O’Neil, is expected to make public at least some of those confidential findings, close to four years after an inquiry began into how former HSU national secretary Craig Thomson used union-provided credit cards.
Mr Thomson moved on to become a Labor MP but a week ago quit the party to sit as an independent. He has consistently said he is innocent of the crimes some have accused him of.
But the union movement leadership has moved on too - from worrying about Mr Thomson and a handful of the HSU’s top officials. They are being left to their fates.
It is more concerned about the fate of the entire movement amid charges that the HSU disease was not an isolated outbreak but part of a widespread contagion.
That is simply not true as even a cursory sweep of evidence would show.
Controversial chief of the HSU’s East Branch, Michael Williamson, earns about $350,000 from the job. Dave Oliver who will soon be the new secretary of the ACTU earns $92,000 a year from the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union.
National secretary of the giant Australian Workers’ Union, Paul Howes, gets paid $140,000 a year. Kathy Jackson, HSU national secretary, gets about $270,000 from her union. She claims she didn’t ask for it. It just appeared. But she agrees it is “obscene”.
You don’t become a union official to make a motza. Well, not in most unions.
The problem for the general union movement is that even from what we currently know - before the release of the FWA report and the full findings of the inquiry by Ian Temby QC - the HSU has been a money-go-round for a select few.
It might not take much to convince a significant number of workers that the same applies to other trade unions.
That could accelerate a decline in union membership which would in turn reduce the influence and funding available to the ALP. It would be another weight to carry for a movement already in decline.
The best thing that happened to Australian trade union recruitment recently was the global financial crisis. It scared up membership numbers.
The proportion of male workers in unions rose from 19 per cent in August 2008 to 20 per cent a year later.
But the decline was the trend. Between August 1992 and August 2011, the proportion of male works in unions fell from 43 per cent to 18 per cent.
The moves to shun the HSU have been significant but too late. The ACTU has suspended the union’s membership in the umbrella group, and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten wants to sack all officials of the East Branch and appoint an administrator (So does NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, which could produce a fierce legal turf war.)
But the question remains: Why wasn’t action taken earlier?
Was it because unions are reluctant to intrude on the management of another union? Or, as the Opposition will hope it can claim, because all unions are the same and the worst ones get political protection?
Meanwhile, Tony Abbott might be firmly reminded over coming days that he has dubbed Kathy Jackson “heroic” for what he sees as her battle against the HSU demons, including Mr Williamson and Mr Thomson.
He has done it at least twice as part of his insistence, before any official rulings, that Mr Thomson was guilty of criminal breaches.
At present nobody knows who will walk from the HSU debacle unblemished. It might be that Mr Abbott will regret his gallantry towards Ms Jackson.
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