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

The royal commission into union corruption has heard that a union was allegedly given $2,500 a week by labour-hire companies linked to a crime figure.

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

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