What to do about union corruption?

Submitted by AWL on 29 April, 2014 - 6:23 Author: Bob Carnegie

The problem of corruption and misuse of union funds has plagued workers’ organisations almost from the heroic beginnings of trade unions.

More than a hundred years ago my hero (we all have a few) Eugene Debs, in a famous speech about the emancipatory nature of organised labour, pleaded that the labour movement had been “betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches and sold out by leaders.” 100 years on it is time we of the left tackle this problem and use a powerful moral argument to start bringing this problem to heel.

We need to put systems in place to stop corruption and end its bedfellow careerism.

Of the points chosen below the great majority are mine, with input from Janet Burstall and Martin Thomas.

The most important point overall is rotational leadership.

Why I place such importance on it, is because it has a tendency to force the point of what a person should stand for — either doing the best one can for working people or to become an official who is there for him or herself and to make sure the job has all attendant trappings.

Let’s all fight to make our unions accountable to the members.

Trade unions in Australia are about to be ruthlessly examined by a Royal Commission headed by probably Australia’s most brilliant conservative legal mind, Dyson Heydon. The Heydon Commission began its work on 9 April, and need is trade due union to report structures in December.

We need trade union structures that are more democratic and which by their very structure can be more open, honest and put probity at the top of the list rather than at the bottom.

1. Union officials should be elected, not appointed. Unions may of course appoint people to “back-room” jobs, but not to official positions with authority in the union.

2. Elected positions are for a maximum of two terms and then one must go back to the rank and file for a term at least.

To union officials who say “Bob, you are crazy, the union must have experienced leadership”, my reply is this: “The President of the USA is elected for two terms maximum”.

With all due respect to any union official, complex as they think their job is, they don’t have the capacity for annihilating the human race. Elected officials should also be subject to recall at any time.

3. All policy-making bodies and conference delegations should be made up of elected lay members only, and their agendas should be organised around proposals from elected members and from the rank and file, not around reports from full-time officials. Policymaking bodies should meet sufficiently often to have real control over the full-time officials, and all full-time officials’ reports should be sent to members at least a week in advance of meetings, with exceptions only for emergencies.

4. Minutes and voting records of policy-making bodies shouldbe posted on the union website.

Members of policy-making bodies who vote against majority decision should be free to explain to members why they have done so.

5. Union officials’ wages. Wages must be linked to the industry in a simple, transparent formula. Some of the wages and benefits paid to many union officials are ridiculous and offensive.

The leader of the Queensland public services union Together is on a $300,000 package, when if he was a public servant paid on his skill and commitment to his class he would be lining up at the Salvation Army to get food to supplement his wages. He is only one of many.

6. An end to honoraria and excessive expenses for union officers and conference delegates. A full account of all expenses received by union officers and delegates and the claims on which they are based should be available for inspection by members.

7. Union officers should be banned from accepting gifts to themselves or to relatives offered in connection with their union activity.

8. Union accounts. Union accounts should be open to all members to observe how their dues are being spent. All unions should have elected financial probity committees made up of at least four rank and filers elected for set terms.

Auditors should be changed every four years. The Maritime Union of Australia have had the same auditors for the best part of 70 years! People get into bad habits that perpetuate themselves.

9. Union vehicles. Union vehicles should not be status symbols. They should be 4 cylinders, hybrid and practical. The current CFMEU construction president in Queensland drives a $110,000 V8 Toyota Land Cruiser. It consumes more fossil fuel than a small Asian city and is purely a type of phallic status symbol. It is an example of treating members’ finances with contempt.