STONE the crows! Why is the ACTU worried about the HSU disgrace? It’s not as if peak union authority is at risk.

For anybody who was on Mars last week, an inquiry into the Heath Services Union outlined how officials had not so much drunk from the trough of members’ money as climbed in and wallowed.

As Kate McClymont reported, without whose outstanding efforts HSU leaders might have continued to pay themselves what they thought they were worth, “$20 million in questionable payments was paid to suppliers to the Union without any form of tendering or contract.”[i]

It is all terribly inconvenient for the ACTU, which wants to levy members for advertising warning workers what an Abbott government could do to their wages and conditions. Which rather begs the question; how much worse than some HSU leaders could the conservatives be?[ii]

And the HSU debacle does not help the ACTU’s allies in cabinet. Workplace Relations minister Bill Shorten’s committee explaining why the government’s re-regulation of industrial relations is working splendidly has reported.[iii] And releasing it will inevitably put the HSU back on the agenda.

The result is ACTU President Ged Kearney felt obliged to state what should be so obvious it did not need stating. According to Ms Kearney, unions are “absolutely committed to the transparent and accountable use of members” funds, and to ensuring that 21st-century best practice policies and procedures are adopted to deal with governance and financial management”. [iv]

Maybe the HSU did not get the memo.

And Bill Shorten used the standard bad apple, or egg, approach as approved by the Federation of Spinners and Weasely Wordsmiths to explain why the HSU is not typical:

The vast majority of Australian trade unions, trade unionists, people representing unions, work very hard and their conduct is exemplary, and I don”t think that a few rotten eggs, a few rotten apples should be allowed to describe the whole of the labour movement in Australia.[v]

Shorten did well to keep his face straight but perhaps did not quite convince all in his audience. Including the ACTU, which recognised a couple of months back it had to demonstrate how committed the comrades are to all that transparent and accountable stuff.

Back in May, the Council established a panel headed by former Federal Court judge Rod Madgwick to advise union officials on propriety with members’ money.[vi] And Ewin Hannan reports talk of an independent union movement ombudsman to take members complaints. [vii]

So that’s all right then.

Not quite. While they represent less than 20 per cent of workers, unions are big, politically powerful organisations. And, while the vast majority of their leaders (Crows are charitable birds) are not in it for the money, they operate at a level far removed from the shop floor.

The front-line union reps, the Crows know, are essentially social workers committed to helping their members; but senior officials are power brokers, fighting to extend their authority with employers, politicians other unions.

And leaders are very hard to remove; they can stack committees and use appointments as their gift to entrench their authority. Look how long it took for anybody to act in the interests of the HSU rank and file.

‘Twas ever thus and ever will be and there is nothing unique to unions in the way the people at the top behave. Those with power in any organisation always assume that their continuing to hold it is in the interest of (insert rank and file of choice here).

But any organisation is in strife when the mass of real or potential members decides its only role is to make up the numbers.

Which is where the ACTU is now. Union membership is up 50,000 on last year but before you start singing “Solidarity Forever” it has dropped from 40 plus of the workforce in 1992 to 18 per cent now. When the teachers, nurses and public servants are taken out it is even worse – just 13 per cent of the private sector workforce are union members.

But the scary statistic for the ACTU is that 1.5 million workers who were once union members are not so anymore.[viii] And not all of them left because employers forced them to become sham contractors.

What’s left of the unions as a mass movement depends on public sector culture and the advantages unions enjoy under Labor’s Fair Work Australia regime, which looks suspiciously like the old arbitration system in the way it is based on an adversarial model of workplace relations where unions are empowered to intervene on behalf of workers, whether or not they are welcome. [ix]

And the ACTU knows it – which is why Ged Kearney is demanding a stronger version of the status quo, calling for Fair Work to stay but with “a more powerful independent umpire for dispute arbitration”.[x] Given the HSU disgrace, it is hard to imagine a worse time for a union leader to ask for anything. But while Ged Kearney may not get the extension of Fair Work Australia’s authority she wants, the system will stay intact, whoever wins the next election.

And the reason is Work Choices – the Howard Government’s deregulation of the labour market – which voters, unionised or not, loathed and which cost the conservatives the 2007 election.

While the memory of Work Choices is the only feather the ACTU has to fly with, even with HSU, it is enough to keep the union movement in the air. And Kearney and her comrades know it.

As Kearney explains at every opportunity:

I am yet to hear a single policy come out of Tony Abbott”s mouth that is good for workers. In fact, we”ve heard him talk about going back to a Work Choices style of AWA agreements, for example, saying that he will introduce more flexibility. Well, workers have begun to learn that flexibility is actually not good for them. In fact we joke in the union movement and say it”s the new “F word” really, because it”s never flexibility for workers. [xi]

Even five years on the popular memory of Work Choices is toxic and it will stay that way for a while – at least until the conservatives start making the case for deregulation and explaining how they will not repeat the Work Choices mess.

Certainly Opposition Leader Abbott makes occasional noises about industrial relations reform to keep business happy. Thus he told the tourism industry:

We will move the workplace relations pendulum back to the sensible centre. You do need more flexibility in your workplace arrangements. Individual flexibility agreements must be made more workable and we will do that. [xii]

But he will not go to the next election, or the one after that, promising to reinstate Work Choices. [xiii]

Industrial deregulation, if it happens at all, will occur as the GST did after John Hewson’s debacle – after years of denial followed by more years of explaining why it was required.

And, in the meantime, the ACTU will stay safe in its redoubt, defending what it has but struggling to come up with a convincing case why workers, millions of workers, should join up.

The HSU crisis and the culture that created it will see to that.


[i] Kate McClymont, “HSU: $20 million of dubious spending, report finds,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 24

[ii] Clay Lucas, “ACTU fighting fund to counter Abbott,” The Age, July 26

[iii] Michelle Grattan, “Tough times ahead over IR and media,” The Age, July 20

[iv] Ewin Hannan, “HSU prompts union watchdog,” The Australian, July 27

[v] ABC TV, 7.30 Report “Bill Shorten on Health Union and health of a political union,” @ recovered on July 28

[vi] Mark Skulley, “ACTU plan to avoid more union scandal,” Australian Financial Review, May 16

[vii] Hannan, ibid

[viii] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Employee earnings, benefits and trade union membership,” August 20 2011 @ Release1August 2011?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=6310.0&issue=August 2011&num=&view= recovered on July 28

[ix] Judith Sloan, “Fair Work Act should be replaced … but don’t hold your breath,” The Australian, May 26

[x] Sid Maher, “Bosses need to back off: Ged Kearney,” The Australian July 23

[xi] ABC TV, Insiders, “ACTU boss talks Labor leadership, industrial relations,” July 22 @

[xii] Tony Abbott, “Address to the Tourism and Transport Forum Leaders Lunch,” July 12 @ recovered on July 29

[xiii] AAP, “Coalition won’t return to Work Choices: Abbott,” The Australian, May 23