Without this prospect, the disgrace would not attract the same attention, because the misappropriation and theft of union members funds are sadly routine occurrences in parts of the union movement. Even Fair Work Australia seems to find it hard to get energised on the matter. Although it has been investigating the Thomson allegations, which he vehemently denies, for two years, no outcome has been achieved. This failure to provide timely answers to union members about what happened to such large sums of money suggests they should not be the body responsible for policing the financial conduct of unions.
Annually, well over $1.3 billion of members’ money is given to Australian unions. The spending of that money is left entirely to the discretion of a small group of union secretaries who operate in a largely unregulated financial setting. Of course, not every union boss is a thief, but the system is just too open to abuse and it’s far too easy to stray without fear of discovery.
When a union official jumps the fence to work for the bosses, they are spoken about by their ex-comrades as having gone to work for the dark side. It is an ironic saying, for if there is a dark side, it is surely the world of the union movement. While I have no knowledge of the Health Services Union, I can speak from many years of experience with unions and as a union official.
Union secretaries inhabit a business environment that is mostly without scrutiny. Morally they sit above reproach, untouchable, having all say but no responsibility. Have you noticed how union officials seem to be able to say anything they like and get away with it?
Generally speaking, an elected union secretary is a privileged person who spends their days surfing a wave of cash, flexing their muscles in the Labor Party factional arena and occasionally saying something on television, which in some cases is wildly inaccurate and outrageous and for which they are never brought to account. The actual running of the union and looking after the members’ interests is delegated to staffers.
Unions are just community organisations made up of groups of workers; financial members, who pool funds for the purpose of advancing their industrial interests. As well as putting money into the union, members vote to elect people to run their union. These elected people are the secretary and an assistant secretary.
In addition, an executive of a few people is elected or appointed by the secretary. The executive is the group charged with checking and overseeing the spending of the members’ funds. Once a quarter they attend meetings at the union office on a voluntary basis, after hours, to approve the spending of the union money.
Some union secretaries seek out the most uninterested and compliant people to sit on the executive. These union secretaries do not want an executive that will challenge spending decisions and scrutinise credit card statements. They want an executive that will munch their biscuits and slurp their tea while signing papers they have not read.
Thieving the money of union members is unfortunately a routine occurrence in some quarters of the labour movement. Money is habitually spent on meals, travel, alcohol, strip clubs and other forms of entertainment that most members would consider inappropriate.
Some union office gatherings have even been held in strip clubs, but mostly it is after conferences that the secretary gets a bunch of his favourite officials together and heads off for a big night financed by union funds. Anyone who wants to see union officials behaving badly and misappropriating funds simply needs to hang around the close of the ALP annual conference and follow the hard-core drinkers to the after party.
Sometimes the after party will occur in a location such as a flash inner-city apartment owned by a property developer who has donated it for the private use of union officials. Such donations are made as part of the package deal with which industrial peace is bought on a construction or other project. Never underestimate the lengths that business owners will go to for the smooth and uninterrupted supply of labour.
I have seen a union official driven around in the limousine of a boss, plied with privilege and gifts just to keep a workforce of only 15 people on the job. Imagine what it is like to have the absolute power to click your fingers and pull 5000 people off a job and cost a company $20 million a day. Imagine what that power could bring you.
Sadly, for union members, scandals hardly ever come to light. Most often union secretaries who have got just a little bit too greedy and obvious with their spending are ousted by a group of officials within the union office, who decide that they want to take over and be the secretary. A bit of digging around in the accounts usually proves enough to convince the incumbent to fall on their sword and move on. The new secretary takes over, and the cycle of spending abuse continues. What starts as a few meals, haircuts or trips away, unchecked, with the passage of time, lack of accountability and the sense they deserve perks for doing an unappealing job, often ends up as outright robbery.
This piece is reproduced with the kind permission of the author