What Australian unions could learn from Nine Inch Nails

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“Hurt” was a 1994 song released by American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails and later covered to great acclaim by singer Johnny Cash not long before his death in 2003.

The song, also known as “What Have I Become,” may be an appropriate replacement for “Solidarity Forever” as the unofficial anthem for the modern trade union movement.

It is a genuine tragedy that the trade union movement, which boasts of giving the world the 8 hour working day (as well as a longer, less credible list of achievements, including claiming credit for the invention of Saturdays and Sundays) has now been reduced to arguing against the identification of corrupt elements in its own ranks.

The unions and Labor have fought the current Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption every step along the way. Not surprising, given their consistent history of opposition to similar inquiries in the past.

An article in The Australian today also reminded us that the CFMEU attempted to have Terence Cole resign as Royal Commissioner over alleged bias way back in 2002, proving that they tread a well-worn path.

Organised trade unionism is clearly at the cross-roads, with membership falling from 46 per cent of the Australian workforce in 1986 to only 17 per cent of the workforce in 2013. The percentage of private sector employees who are members of a union was only 12 per cent.

In fact, there are more Australians that are a member of an Australian rules football club (836,136 as of July 2015) than there are private sector full-time employees who are members of a trade union (759,000 as of June 2013).

Instead of trying to tear the Commission down and pretending that the problems it has identified don’t exist, the union movement should be asking itself “How Did Things Get to This Point,” “What Is it About Our Structures or Business that Attracts Corruption” and of course “What Have We Become?”

You can’t blame Tony Abbott or Dyson Heydon for the practices uncovered at the Royal Commission, which has already seen more than 25 union officials referred to law enforcement agencies and regulators for further action.

Rather than trying to shut the Commission down, unions should be co-operating with it so that they can identify and weed out the people that are bringing their movement into disrepute. That the unions would rather turn a blind eye to illegal activity suggests that problems in the union movement are far deeper than already identified.

However, the initial response to Commissioner Heydon’s decision to remain at the helm has not been positive. The unions and opposition have continued to assert the Commissioner’s bias, and used their own allegation to justify further action, which proves again Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote that The Left has never been slow to exploit the problems it creates.

Is this really what trade unions have become?

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