TWU

Bill Shorten Is Not The Sole Target Of The Royal Commission - Workers' Power Is Too

Release date: 14/07/2015

Sydney Morning Herald, by TWU National Secretary Tony Sheldon, 14 July 2015

The Royal Commission into Trade Unions is not a witch hunt. A witch hunt suggests a focused effort to hunt down a small group or individual. And while part of the bang the Abbott government is looking to derive from its 80 million bucks is to "kill Bill", the overarching aim of the commission is actually far greater than that.

The Royal Commission into Trade Unions is not a witch hunt. A witch hunt suggests a focused effort to hunt down a small group or individual. And while part of the bang the Abbott government is looking to derive from its 80 million bucks is to "kill Bill", the overarching aim of the commission is actually far greater than that.

Funnily enough, Shorten's recent appearance demonstrated this amply. The aim of Counsel Assisting Jeremy Stoljar was ostensibly to drill deep in a dogged hunt for a "gotcha" moment. But because such a moment could not be found, the nine hours of questioning often took the form of a political debate about the legitimate role of workplace community representatives in Australia.

For leading a moderate union with co-operative ties to the worlds of business and politics, Shorten was repeatedly accused of having conflicted interests. Other unions have faced accusations of illegitimacy for being too antagonistic in their militancy.

Either way the core objection is the same: stop exercising power. Stop having an influential voice.

Those who oppose the Australian labour movement understand the ability of workers to affect meaningful change stems from broad collectivist power.

It is their view, therefore, that while nominally being allowed to exist, unions should be restricted to the status of a sporting club or a discount loyalty program. They want unions to cease being collectivist and broad, and transform into narrow organisations providing niche services to individuals.

They demand impotence. Play a role with a political party: illegitimate. Confront bosses: unconscionable. Work co-operatively with business to achieve common goals: corrupt.

There will never be an acceptable middle ground for these critics because their feigned critiques are not sincere. Their real problem is with workers exercising real power and having a voice.

This prism explains the anguish when the ACCC last month concluded a thorough investigation by finding there was nothing wrong with a co-operative safety and training arrangement between the Transport Workers Union and Toll Holdings.

The assumption from the conservative elites was that obviously something was wrong. How could a co-operative safety and training initiative be legitimate? Surely it must be some kind of scam to be stamped out.

Trucking is the nation's most deadly profession and one in which co-operative safety and training initiatives are desperately required.

If unions were simply "member clubs" with limited capacity to co-operate with business and politics, safety and training programs would not exist. But we need them. About 330 Australian lives are lost each year in truck-related crashes. A huge proportion can be traced to pressure down the chain to force unsafe driving practices. A recent poll found 46 per cent of drivers in the Coles supply chain feel pressure to skip breaks, 28 per cent feel pressured to speed, and 26 per cent feel pressured to carry overweight loads.

A Senate inquiry on road safety this year heard about Stephen Day, a truck driver serving a 10-year sentence for killing a cyclist after being required to work "extraordinary hours". His case is not extraordinary.

The inquiry also heard testimony from truck driver Duane Bowering who has two brothers who have died behind the wheel. Duane, who is paid $24 an hour, said he is rarely allowed a meal break and often has to work fatigued.

The elites, the 0.1 per cent who actually hold the reins of business power in this country, want a world where there is no one to push back when a company like Coles applies economic pressures on truck drivers like Duane to drive unsafely to edge up profits.

If those slamming unions and crying crocodile tears for workers over the conduct of Bill Shorten were sincere, where are the tears for Stephen, for Duane, and for the 330 people who died last year? Is it possible for anyone with a shred of credibility in defending the interests of working Australians to truly believe that Mr Shorten and unions are the real enemy?

According to a recent paper by the International Monetary Fund the socially destabilising rise of extreme inequality was far more pronounced in nations with declining trade union membership. "The decline in unionisation appears to be a key contributor to the rise of top income shares," the IMF paper found. This, in turn, allows the wealthy to "manipulate the economic and political system."

When working people's voices are diminished or silenced the world is a greedier place to live.

Tony Sheldon is national secretary of the Transport Workers Union.

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