Kickbacks allegation: What does it mean for unions’ future?

by Janie Smith03 Sep 2014
Witnesses have told the royal commission into union corruption that the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union was allegedly given weekly kickbacks by companies linked to crime figure George Alex, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

According to the article, Elite Access Scaffolding director Michael Cohen told the commission that he gave the weekly “union payment” to Alex’s associate, Joe Antoun, prior to Antoun being murdered in December.

He said it was his understanding that the money went to the CFMEU.

Former Elite Access Scaffolding NSW director Douglas Westerway said he withdrew weekly payments of $2,500 which were designated as union payments in his account records, but he could not confirm that the money went to the CFMEU.

The hearings are continuing, but the allegations raise an important question – is there still a place for unions in today’s economy?

“It’s not a black and white answer,” Kieren Turner, a consultant for industrial and employment relations firm Adelhelm & Associates, told HC.

“The best way to look at it that there are some unions that have become very progressive and they’re actively working with employers to improve the lot of their members, but they also recognise that it’s important for employers to be able to grow and prosper in order for their members to have a secure future.”

He said the headlines tended to be full of the negative aspects of certain unions, but many good news stories existed as well.

“Where unions have made a decision to engage in a positive way with employers, there’s certainly a relevance going forward. Where unions have stuck by 1970s rationale of ‘it’s us and them’, that clearly doesn’t help anyone going forward.” 

Turner said union participation had dropped dramatically since the 1980s.

“I think the challenge for all the unions going forward, particularly in light of the royal commission, is how they are going to be relevant, particularly for the younger employees in the workforce.”

HR director Kellie Warta told HC that she believed there was a place for unions when they advocated on behalf of groups in the workforce that may otherwise not have a voice or be able to negotiate on their own behalf, including those from non-English-speaking backgrounds or those without higher education.

“A union is necessary in that respect to be able to negotiate and assist in workplace conflict.”

She said that in some situations, a business-savvy union delegate could be an asset in coming up with a solution when HR was faced with an upset employee.

“I do see that they [unions] can be problematic but in respect of people who don’t have an avenue to be heard, I think it is necessary to have someone who can advocate, understand the legislation and do the best thing by the workforce.”

Do you think unions are still relevant in today’s economy?


  • by Stephen Barton 3/09/2014 12:25:39 PM

    These allegations no more spell the death of unions than similar allegations against business heads signal the end of big business or corrupt politicians mean the end of government. The challenge is to deal with these corrupt officials but in the meantime focus on the positives unions have achieved

  • by Catherine Cahill 3/09/2014 1:01:19 PM

    I have worked with good unions and bad unions - and everything in between.

    The good unions work with HR and management to come up with solutions that work for everyone. The bad unions treat us like the enemy and still think that bullying is an acceptable "negotiation" tactic.

    But good or bad, there is a huge gap in the market for providing assistance to individual employees, as Individuals. Gen X, Y & Z do not want to be treated as a "Collective" - they want to be seen and treated as individuals. As Unions refuse to even contemplate a future of individual contracts and negotiations, a huge proportion of the workforce is left with no representation.

    I do understand that treating employees as individuals completely goes against the Union movement's ethos; but if they remain steadfast on this philosophy they will continue to lose relevance.

  • by Amanda Rochford 3/09/2014 2:38:01 PM

    What union has the time, money or resources to engage in bargaining for individuals one person at a time! If an individual wants to negotiate an individual agreement they can engage the services of a negotiator. Most likely that will cost them more than the benefits they will gain. For those people in the bottom 90% of the work chain, collective bargaining is the best value for money in terms of benefits gained.

    It is true, that unions have lost relevance in recent times but they have never been, are not, and will never be, irrelevant. And in my opinion they are about to become increasingly more relevant to staff in the near future as times get tougher and tougher for workers and more and more profitable for big business.

    Gen X, Y & Z will be the workers who need to pay off their huge student debt, will not be able to afford to buy a home, will be working casual and part-time hours, will not have any security of tenure, will not have unemployment benefits to rely on, and will be expected to work until age 70 (and that may go even higher) etc etc etc. My guess is that in upcoming years, the unions will become highly relevant and the general understanding of the power that comes from collective bargaining will become more and more apparent (and necessary).

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