A Crook weakened my Union – Careerists weaken many
Written by: John G. on 18 October 2021
My union’s previous state and national secretary was a big wheel in the ACTU, a Vice-President, and was at one time President of the ALP. He was caught, not with his fingers in the till, but up to his armpits into union coffers.
Eventually he admitted to creaming off $5 million over his 20-year career. And that was what he admitted to.
In his later years, around 2012, he was on a ‘wage’ of $350,000, with another $150,000 or so in payments for board and other appointments he got as a result of his position. The job came with a car, petrol, and phone supplied. His expense account notoriously included long lunches on Thursdays and Fridays with some hangers-on and ‘political’ connections. First class interstate trips and accommodation were par for the course. He had a deal with a supplier to pay his kids top private school fees, and regularly hand over paper bags of cash. He was made a partner in another supplier’s business which meant he pocketed another couple of hundred thousand a year from inflated contract pricing.
The union covers various workers including labourers and clerks paid basic rates, under $1,000 a week. The secretary was officially being paid ten times that,
with a phone, car and petrol supplied, and huge kickbacks on the side.
Along with all that financial corruption, his reign sapped and undermined the strength of the union by his approach to securing his position.
The main weakness came from isolating members into site branches with very little connection with workers or delegates from other workplaces, even of the one employer. In a state union of 30,000 members, around 300 or so delegates got together once a year at a powerless union conference, a consultative body not even mentioned in the union rules. Only one delegate from a workplace was allowed to attend so where I worked with 1,000 members one delegate went. The conferences were held for two or three days during a working week. They were lavish events with accommodation, dinners, drink, entertainment and giveaways laid on. Talking heads and set piece reports from officials dominated with very limited time for delegates to share experiences and get to know each other.
There was a tendency for active members to share attendance around. The lavishness also tended to draw out some who were self-important, greedy and grasping. Some delegates elbowed their way to ‘win the prize’. They were open to becoming mercenaries on the gravy train.
Union elections were a joke. Members weren’t notified of them. They were advertised in the public notices in a national daily newspaper, the Australian, which is read by a few upper-class characters and politicians. The Secretary could rely on virtually no union members seeing the ad, all by the rules. There was no ad in the union journal, no notice to members sent out and no notice on the union’s website.
The Secretary would get his cronies on the Union Council, the Committee of Management, and national bodies to sign nominations forms anytime up to 6 or 8 months before elections each 5 years were due. Elections were run by the Electoral Commission. He put nominations in and sometimes officials found nominations closed without their name being put forward. They were out. Organisers who knew elections were coming were told to keep it to themselves until nominations closed. Voting happened only twice in about 20 years and one of those as a result of a merger and rivalry from the minor players in the merger.
At the same time there was reliance on connections with government bureaucrats, leading Labor Party politicians and corporate leaders to ‘manage’ wage deals of the bulk of members. While the early deals sustained wage levels, they involved efficiency agreements. That involved productivity-increase trade-offs in the 1990s and early 21st century opening the door to positions being eliminated and workloads increased in restructures without any job or wage upgrades. It became an endless tide of restructures, job losses and increased workloads, with the union effectively folding its arms in the face of no further claims clauses and who knows what deals.
Some of us found ways to turn this around but that just focussed the union leaderships’ attention on militants. They took more steps to isolate militants who were having some success fighting the restructuring corporatisation tide. Some were offered union positions worth a couple of times their wage packet. Some succumbed and were removed from their connection with the old workplaces, completely reliant on the grace and favour of the leadership.
Others found that organisers were warned about ‘troublemakers’ in workplaces and issued strict orders to keep an eye on specific members and report back any activity they were involved in. Some organisers took no notice and a few let militants know when they recognised militants’ commitment to the workers and leadership in the workplace. In some cases, the Secretary tried to get bureaucrats to sack ‘troublemakers’ for the same reason, fortunately with no success that I am aware of.
This work to isolate militants, and keep members in each workplace separate from members in other workplaces, had two consequences.
Firstly, it staved off challenges to the Secretary’s rule over the union.
Secondly, it systematically weakened the union, kept workers from working together across the industry, across multiple employers, getting organised in a strong compact unit lined up in opposition to the front of employers exploiting the members. It also weakened the union in most individual workplaces, given union officials became the bosses’ collaborators in restructuring and corporatisation, job losses and increasing workloads, and in isolating workplaces.
This weakness was exacerbated when the Secretary’s corruption was exposed, and the state of the union’s finances became clear. The union was just on broke. The Secretary had sucked it almost dry. As others took the reins in a weak alliance of militants and hangovers from the previous regime, some strength was restored, but it was limited. Financial strength was easily restored when a million dollar Secretary with his rake-offs was replaced with a Secretary paid a fraction of that, suppliers were replaced, corrupt contracts were cancelled and governance was tightened.
However systematic mechanisms for changing the situation were limited. New election rules mean members are notified by email and in the union journal, but other restraints remain. Delegate meetings and campaign gatherings have increased but Covid has meant people to people isolation and further isolation of workplace from workplace. The Secretary is top dog, with some officials tending to act as the Secretary’s cronies with members secondary.
A big question over how did he last 20 years remains.
A number of militants tried to get organised to get the union to get rid of him. The range of workplaces brought into that proved to be limited. It was virtually impossible to shift him until a rival appeared and exposed some of his financial corruption. Mind you the rival was out to replace him, desperate to grab the position, not to clean up the union and get it organised for the members.
As one militant graphically put it, the Secretary and his rival were two rats fighting over a knob a cheese.
The Point of Unions
The point of unions is to muster workers’ strength through organising them into a united resolute group standing up to their immediate bosses and to corporate bosses as a class.
In the workplace, tendencies of workers to unite against their boss conflict with tendencies for workers to compete for position. Casual and precarious contract jobs strengthen the tendencies for workers to compete against each other, for shifts, hours, overtime, temporary upgrades, for the manager’s favour. Permanent jobs and shifts tend to reduce competition between workers and are more favourable to bringing workers together. Of course, these tendencies can become stronger or weaker depending on pressures in the workplace.
Unions get organised through the clashes of individual workers with individual bosses, workers at one site or in one company with the corporate boss who manages their direct exploitation. As struggle grow from one workplace to many similar workplaces, workers across an industry become engaged in conflict with corporate bosses in the industry. Bosses and government strive to keep workplaces separated, isolated from other workers facing the same conditions.
EBA’s very existence was based on consolidating the separation of workplaces from one another in facing the boss. They are used to keep workers separated from others in the industry, keeping workers and union weak. The CFMEU construction division in NSW has presented the same demands to multiple employers in an effort to break out of the strictures. We are yet to see how they’ll go but it’s a great task they have set themselves. Where the separation of workplaces from each other is overcome, workers across an industry face a combined front of their corporate bosses, a union of corporations. Facing that bosses’ united front creates a natural response of solidarity and breeds consciousness of workers as a class confronting corporate bosses as a class.
The working class when becoming more organised, united, active and identifying itself as a separate class experiences two tendencies.
Firstly, spontaneity promotes acceptance of the continuation of capitalism and capital's rule over society, of workers accepting an interdependent relation with capital involving exploitation and oppression. At best it limits its aims to struggle for corporate capital to concede a bigger share to workers while leaving exploitation and dominance over workers intact. This trade union politics allows capital, especially when under pressure from worker's struggle, to reorganise and consolidate its economic strength, and to organise and strengthen its police, armed forces, judicial, administrative, financial and other government organs to suppress workers action to restrict capital's exploitation and oppression.
The other tendency is to spread understanding of workers’ interests as a class ranged against their exploiters’ capital, combining across industries and communities providing a platform for the class to understand and adopt its own interests as a class, to free itself from the millstone of its exploiter and oppressor, capital.
That doesn't happen spontaneously with the organisation of workers as a class. It requires going deeper into the nature of the capitalist system and its hold over the working class, basically through workers’ thinking being liberated from the limitations of trade union politics. It needs the politics of liberating workers from capital completely, the revolutionary thinking of Marxism-Leninism, being propagated and providing a lead. Not being a spontaneous response to the symptoms of capitalist exploitation and oppression, the Marxist-Leninist system of ideas needs people bringing it into the workers’ movement. Like a novice at the pool, without being shown how to swim, and how to breathe when dipping their head into the water, they are a candidate for drowning. They can refuse to go in beyond waist level and try to avoid getting their head underwater but that's hardly 'liberating' them to enjoy a swim. Spontaneously they are limited and lack understanding and ideas to swim with any confidence and safety. With identification of the dangers being faced, the skills involved and practice, they can come to be free in the water. Without Marxism-Leninism and a party that propagates it in organised worker circles, the working class flounders about. Trade Union politics is the politics of workers without knowledge of the dangers, the skills and the practice, that provide the capacity to liberate themselves as a class. Marxism-Leninism provides the ideas required for working class liberation.
Vital to union strength in defending and extending the rights and interests of workers is the formation of compact methodical organised bodies of class conscious workers to face their corporate bosses. Some union leaders fear strong compact organised bodies of their members. It can pose a challenge, or threaten to become a challenge to their position as top dogs. Among union leaders some suffer from a tendency to work against their members or delegates coming together across multiple workplaces, getting to know each other and becoming capable of drawing up plans to overcome the combinations of corporate bosses confronting them.
Leaders often keep workers and delegate separated, other than their small faction of supporters, often based on employed officials who rely on the grace and favour of the leadership. They dominate despite democratic forms of elections etc. They stack governance bodies with their hangers-on. The spread of information across the union is ‘managed’ using compliant organisers, all communication through the office, few if any delegates meetings, campaigns run from head-office, no bodies covering multiple workplaces like area committees or the like. Separating and keeping workers in the dark tends hinders challenges to the top dog being mounted outside of the ranks of officials dominated by hangers-on.
All this directly conflicts with the fundamental necessities for building strong unions, mustering workers in struggles across multiple workplaces getting together to confront corporate bosses across multiple workplaces, the basis of strong, resolute united organisation of workers gaining consciousness of themselves as a class confronting the class of corporate owners.
Unfortunately, this tendency has strength among Australian unions. It is not anywhere near the whole story, witness the fury directed at the maritime and construction divisions of the CFMEU, where workers are mustered in strength, loads of delegates meet regularly, and their leaders take pride in the strength of the organisation.
In many unions there is a mix of the two tendencies, including within the CFMEU. The tendency to draw workers together, to struggle to break out of the shackles of the EBA system and unite workplaces across industries to confront the union of corporate bosses, to act for the working class is pitted against officials’ interests in keeping their positions, some measure of separating workers, isolating some workers or workplaces which, to strengthen workers’ organisation, might challenge leaders.
Militant workers have the task of making sure that building strong workers’ organisation lined up against corporate bosses is the focus of the internal workings of their union. The struggle against careerism is vital for the rebuilding of strong organisations of workers busting out of the strictures of the (Un) Fairwork Act in this country, and building the front of workers organising themselves to break corporate class rule.
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