Features Australia

‘Fake unions’ are the real deal

Competition within the union movement? Yes, please.

30 October 2021

9:00 AM

30 October 2021

9:00 AM

‘Fake unions’: new associations ride jab mandate fears to get members, screamed the lengthy article in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

The eager author had clearly been given the drop from the establishment union movement. Evidently, ‘a set of “fake unions” with links to current and former Liberal and National party figures are capitalising on anti-vaccination fears to recruit doctors, teachers and nurses and exploit dissent within the labour movement about mandatory vaccinations’.

While acknowledging that these ‘fake unions’ were actually established as far back as 2014, the secretary of the ACTU, Sally McManus, is favourably quoted. ‘These are fake unions run by LNP members and their associates set up to try and divide working people. This amounts to an LNP-sponsored anti-vaccination campaign which will directly and needlessly cause working people to contract a deadly virus’.

Where do you start? For one thing, these ‘fake unions’ are actually the real deal, with rapidly increasing numbers of paid-up members, something that is clearly a threat to ‘genuine unions’. And complaining about political connections is surely a bit rich from a union movement that has deep and powerful connections to the Labor party.

As for these ‘fake unions’ waging an anti-vaccination campaign, this is simply untrue, although the new unions do uphold the principle that vaccinations should be voluntary, a principle that the ACTU also recently signed up to.

Take this joint statement released by the ACTU and the Business Council of Australia in August this year: ‘we believe that for the overwhelming majority of Australians, your work or workplace should not fundamentally alter the voluntary nature of vaccination’.

As events panned out, ‘genuine unions’ have been caught out as a number of states, including Labor-governed ones, have imposed wide-ranging vaccine mandates and some companies have opted for ‘no jab, no job’ for their workers.

This has created a bewildering dilemma for Sally McManus and a large number of union officials, who have had to trade off their commitment to voluntary vaccination with their political allegiance to Labor governments. They know that many union members object to being compelled to have the jab but have been forced to go along with the health dictates of state governments and large employers.

Into this vacuum, the Red Union Support Hub has been able to attract new members, including among nurses, other health professionals, teachers, police and professional drivers. But these unions were around before the vaccine mandate issue blew up. In particular, the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland has been adding members for over six years and now boasts total membership of close to 10,000.

The basic pitch of these new ‘real deal’ unions is that they exist only to serve the interests of members. No financial or other contributions are made to political parties. Charging between half and three-quarters of the dues of old unions, they represent real value for members while providing the essential services, including professional indemnity insurance. They pose genuine competition for these old unions which are not used to having their patches contested.

It is an interesting historical anomaly as to why competing unions have not been established in the past. On the face of it, the industrial relations laws would appear to be extremely hostile to the establishment of competing unions taking on those unions already registered. After all, the Registered Organisations Act (that sits outside the Fair Work Act) talks about a union being denied registration should one already exist to which members ‘could conveniently belong to’.

It turns out, however, that this seemingly monopoly-enforcing rule for existing registered unions does not preclude other unions from being established because Australia is bound by an international convention that ensures that every worker has the right to form their own union.

In the past, the advantages of incumbency for existing unions and the high cost of attempting to establish competing unions meant that it remained only a theoretical possibility that existing unions could face competition.

Unsurprisingly, the unions became lazy, carrying excessive overheads and willing to donate any surpluses to their favourite political causes, which generally involved handing money over, directly or indirectly, to the Labor party. They also lost a lot of members because they failed to provide any real value. In the mid-1970s, just over half of workers belonged to a trade union; it is now around 14 per cent, and less than 10 per cent among private sector workers.

The areas in which trade unionism remains strong are relatively small in number and include teaching, nursing, the police, parts of construction (large CBD projects, civil engineering works), parts of mining and the tiny maritime sector.

Then along came Graeme Haycroft, Queensland resident and experienced hand in industrial relations who ran his own large labour-hire firm. He saw the opportunity to set up a competing union to recruit nurses in Queensland – the NPAQ – and was prepared to stump up enough patient capital to make it happen.

Initially, it was hard going establishing the necessary back office infrastructure and recruiting members to an unknown fledging organisation. The incumbent trade union, the Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union, took little notice of NPAQ at first, although it has since attempted to stymie its growth by tying up the new union in costly legal disputes as well as making the practical operation of NPAQ as difficult as possible.

Sensing the desire by union members in other professions to have an alternative representative body, Haycroft and his team have since branched out to represent other workers beyond nurses and not just in Queensland. This has led to a rebranding of the group as the Red Union Support Hub, in which the policies of the unions are determined by the members themselves while there is a centralised support system to undertake the necessary day-to-day functions on behalf of the organisations.

To be sure, the imposition of vaccine mandates, many of which are very difficult to justify, has given a major boost to the recruiting efforts of the Red Union organisations, as those workers who object to the mandating of vaccines – they are not all unvaccinated – have felt profoundly let down by their existing unions.

The Red Union organisations are prepared to fight for the right of workers to refuse vaccination, including taking legal action. It’s a fight that’s likely to lead to even more members and even more competition for old unions. Watch this space.

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