A surgical dresser earns about $24 an hour. A cook or a gardener gets a little less, an experienced cardiac technician a little more. These are the kinds of workers who rely on the Health Services Union to negotiate their wages and conditions and to police their enforcement. And these are the workers betrayed by former HSU leader Craig Thomson, who used his union credit card to spend $74,000 on dining and entertainment, while drawing out $103,000 in cash and directing more than $250,000 of members’ money towards being elected an MP.
The media’s focus has been on the problems that Thomson has caused the Gillard government, which looked the other way until recently to hold on to his vote.
If Labor had a solid majority, it’s likely that Thomson would have been kicked out of the ALP when the scandal first broke. After all, Dean Mighell, left-wing secretary of the Electrical Trades Union in Victoria, was promptly expelled by then leader Kevin Rudd for… swearing.
But Gillard tolerated Thomson until the delayed Fair Work Australia report was released in early May. The price of continued survival has been to deepen the sense of corruption and desperation that surrounds the government.
Rank and file response
The real victims of the scandal, however, are health workers themselves. They have responded in one of three ways.
According to reports, many are simply walking away from the union in disgust. Their anger is understandable, but resigning from the union leaves the existing leadership in place and strengthens the hands of hospital managements.
Others are backing Labor’s proposals for tougher accountability laws for unions (and employer organisations). This follows the government’s announcement that it would appoint an administrator to take over the HSU East branch, replacing its current officials until fresh elections are held.
Supporting these moves would be a mistake. Governments do not intervene into the life of unions to make them more effective, fighting organisations.
If Labor were really concerned about healthy unionism, it would take a stand against the reactionary leaders of the shopworkers’ SDA, who use the union as a platform to attack abortion rights, or it would criticise union leaders who hide behind the law to avoid calling action.
Of course, it does nothing of the sort. Rather Labor governments have usually preferred to take on militant unions, sending in troops to break the coalminers’ strike in 1949, deregistering the Builders Labourers Federation in 1986 or using the RAAF against the pilots in 1989.
Kathy Jackson, Thomson’s factional rival within the HSU who portrays herself as a clean pair of hands, has taken the logic of government intervention to its logical conclusion, saying unions should be treated like corporations.
She told 7.30 on ABC TV: “I think we need to have a different regulatory body that’s not part of Fair Work Australia … my personal view is that how [unions are] currently regulated isn’t enough and we do need to go to a model more like the ASIC model.”
She is wrong. The principle is simple: unions belong to their members and however bad the mess is, it’s for the members to clear up. The best antidote to corruption, or just self-serving inactivity, by union officials is more democracy and more involvement.
It’s not easy, but it can be done. There’s an inspiring account of one such turnaround in the book, The Last Battle, by Lindsay Tanner. Tanner is best known as Finance Minister under Rudd. But 30 years ago he was a young left activist in the Federated Clerks Union, now part of the Australian Services Union.
The FCU’s Victorian branch was the bastion of the Groupers, anti-communist Catholics, many of whom were in the Democratic Labor Party. Tanner and other activists founded a reform group to challenge the reactionary leadership.
It took several years to break through, but the reform group did so by focusing on the members’ concerns and steady and determined campaigning—leafleting and visiting workplaces, making contact with isolated shop stewards, creating rank-and-file networks.
These are the kind of steps needed for HSU members to reclaim their union. The motion passed by HSU East members at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, declaring no confidence in their officials and calling for fresh elections, is a healthy first step.