In all of the government's aggressive commentary on working people who choose to belong to unions, there is one fact that is consistently omitted. Unions are civil society organisations. Even the World Bank, that hotbed of militancy, happily acknowledges this truth: "Civil society ... refers to a wide array of organisations: community groups, non-governmental organisations, labour unions, Indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, and foundations."
Martin Luther King understood that union struggles are civil rights struggles. Indeed the reason he was in Memphis at the time of his assassination in 1968 was to support striking garbage collectors: "The labour movement", he said, "was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress... The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome."
They resisted it until they were overcome. Hold that thought. It is key to understanding how the Ensuring Integrity Bill is all about buttressing corporate resistance to organised hope, how it is the culmination of a succession of attacks on civil society, especially through attempts to muzzle advocacy.
Unions are advocacy organisations. Union members, ordinary working people, organise themselves to collectively advocate for their rights. This far-reaching bill gives unprecedented powers to the businesses that would prefer not to be held to account for such things as wage theft and breaches of worker health and safety. It would grant both government and the corporate sector a gold pass to shutting down unions and disqualifying union officers. Not as a means of ensuring integrity or democracy but as a means of ensuring that nothing stands in the way of their gleeful neoliberal project of driving down what they call the "cost of labour" (and what the rest of us call our livelihood) and bypassing the rights of workers to collectively bargain, to be treated respectfully, to protect themselves against the trashing of decent working conditions.
This is not about fighting crime. It is about criminalising advocacy.
This is not about fighting crime. It is about criminalising advocacy. And potentially protecting employers who break the law. It is about trying to intimidate those who unite together to speak up against injustice. It is salutary in this connection to remember the sage words attributed to the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller in 1946:
"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;
"Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;
"Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;
"Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;
"Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me."
When we are silent while refugees who are seeking our protection are viciously turned on as if they were criminals, or when First Nations children are tortured and degraded in our jails, we are emboldening governments, assuring them that they can get away with the unconscionable. The unorganised and isolated might seem easy to pick off. The well organised, on the other hand, are targeted precisely because they are harder to pick off. Oppressors and bullies are most afraid of those who do not fear them. The Ensuring Integrity Bill, with its ability to interfere with the internal democracy of a union, is an attempt to disorganise organised labour, because of the fearlessness of a movement that is so profoundly collective and therefore so inherently attuned to the principle of solidarity. Civil society organisations have the right to do what they were founded for, to fulfil their primary purpose, a purpose that is endangered not just by frontal attacks. In 2017 the Civil Voices report, initiated by Pro Bono Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, noted: "many organisations report that they engage in some form of 'self-silencing' - treading very carefully in their advocacy work less they risk financial security and political retribution." As one survey respondent indicated: "Our organisation has not been targeted for being critical of government because our areas of interest are not currently as controversial as some other policy areas. But we observe other charities/sectors being targeted for being outspoken and holding government to account."
There have been numerous attempts to limit, or even remove, the right of civil society organisations to advocate within the public and political arena. Last year, for example, the Australian Council for International Development argued in relation to the proposed Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill: "this Bill will stifle the voice of Australians and corrode our democracy." We are now also seeing deeply disturbing attacks by the current (neo)Liberal government on democratic rights such as the right to protest, the right to boycott and the freedom of the press.
You can't have a strong democracy without a robust civil society. The Ensuring Integrity Bill does not ensure democracy. Neither does it ensure integrity. You don't ensure integrity by suppressing sections of civil society. Big business has enormous power and the resources to influence public policy. If the government wanted to ensure democracy it would care less about broadening the already substantial rights of big business and more about protecting the rights of civil society: unions, community groups, charities, social movements, associations that are neither businesses nor part of the machinery of government. If the government wanted to protect our democracy it would, for example, support the creation of a genuine federal independent commission against corruption, unlike its preferred model, with a broad mandate and teeth! The Ensuring Integrity Bill takes democratic power away from ordinary working people, while giving more power to those whose interests often lie in keeping wages down and cutting corners on worker health and safety. With its extremist and authoritarian curtailment of the right to freedom of association, this bill, and all that it stands for, needs to be ended, not amended.
As Pope Francis said: "The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of the trade union." It does however understand the threat that the trade union movement, and civil society in general, poses to unfettered corporate rule.
- Dr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He was the national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018 and is a member of the Australian Services Union.