Political unions: a matter of officials’ business

Grace Collier 


This won’t come as a shock but some unions do not exist to represent union members. Some exist primarily to put union officials into parliament. Their union membership list, real or fictitious, comes second to political business activity and is used as a means to an end.

These unions are regarded as political unions, as distinct from industrial unions. Their core business is politics. Political unions don’t need active members, they just require money because it buys them political power. Their endgame is to have hordes of ex-officials — as Labor politicians in Canberra — legislating broadly the union agenda. For example, the Australian Workers Union and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association are regarded as political unions.

The people who run these unions would defend their model like this. They can accomplish more for working people by being politicians than they can by being union officials. It is too hard to fix individual workers’ problems in workplaces. Instead, they will be more effective — fixing all workers’ problems — by doing something bigger, like becoming prime minister. It is a big sacrifice, but because they care so much about workers they are prepared to make it. The real reason the political union agenda is to achieve political control is that they need to preserve a system of complicated workplace legislation. They may fund activist groups to influence opinion and give a government the reason to implement new policies and create bureaucracies.

Political unions need a system so they can game it to make money. These unions can help businesses break the rules, because this is the easy way to make profit. The money is used to run the political machine and put more officials into parliament, who make more laws. This is how the money, the privilege and the pay-offs all keep going around and around.

For example, political unions are keen for the government to keep our system of penalty rates in place because, while they hyperventilate about penalty rates in public, in private they can make money by doing deals with large employers that allow them to avoid penalty rates.

This paradoxical model of unionism isn’t exclusive to Australia. In the US some unions operate in similar ways. They have rules made and exploit them to make money for themselves while screwing over workers in the process. In the US, the minimum wage is set at the local level. Tens of millions of dollars has been spent on “Fight for $15”, a feel-good campaign that in recent years has swept across California. The campaign centred on publicly pressuring cities to raise their minimum wage to more than $15 an hour — provided, in an unpublicised move, an escape clause was put into the legislation. The clause allows any business to pay staff less than the minimum wage providing they make a collective agreement with a union and force all their employees to join and pay union dues.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times ran a headline saying workers felt “Outrage after big labor crafts law paying their members less than non-union workers”. Chito Zamayla, 61, a Sheraton bellhop from Los Angeles, asked to have the escape clause abolished so he and his co-workers could have “equal footing with employees of non-union businesses”. He said: “I’m losing $12,000 a year.”

Penny Moore, a bartender at the Sheraton Universal, was perplexed when told employees would not be getting the minimum wage, so she rang the union office. She said the union organiser told her to “look at the bigger picture”, that “this is going to make all the hotels go union”. She said she took this to mean hotels would embrace collective bargaining with unions to pay their staff under the minimum wage. She was right.

One union has celebrated a surge in membership of more than 70 per cent, while its new members lament being forced to join, as well as missing out on the newly legislated minimum wage.

This week, in Sydney, about 100 activists with trucks blocked a road and protested outside a law firm. Why? That firm has taken on a class action for self-employed truck drivers. Organised by Independent Contractors Australia, these drivers are aiming to sue for millions of dollars for the recent losses that were visited on them (the firm wouldn’t say who they were suing).

The notorious Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal recently was abolished because parliament recognised an order it had issued, about “safe rates” of pay, was about to decimate the self-employed truck driver sector. The RSRT is an example of how a union can design a self-serving system and have it implemented by operatives in Canberra who have no care for the harm it will do to people.

Labor says it will reinstate the RSRT. You wouldn’t expect anything less. Leader Bill Shorten has an election bus with something painted on the side about how Labor will put people first. The Labor Party, it seems now controlled by the political unions, does not have the ability to put people first. The only people it will put first are union people, and I don’t mean union members.