Whether it be for bringing the nation’s ports to a standstill in 1998 or being slammed for rampant disregard for the law in the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in 2015, few unions are as feared by employers in Australia as the former Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).
Not surprisingly, then, industry groups such as the Master Builders Association and the Australian Mines and Metals Association fought tooth and nail to prevent the amalgamation of the two unions and the Textiles, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) on March 27.
That merger has created a new ‘super-union’ known as the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU). It has more than 100,000 members across four divisions: Construction and General, Manufacturing, Mining and Energy and the Maritime Union of Australia division.
In a statement published after the merger was approved by the Fair Work Commission on March 6, Master Builders Australia chief executive officer Denita Warn cautioned of dire consequences for the economy. With its combined coverage, Warn said the new entity would be able to shut down entire supply chains and “hold the economy to ransom.” The MUA and CFMEU, Warn said, shared a “common belief” that they were above the law and had a culture of bullying, intimidation and industrial thuggery. Merging them together would see these tactics become more prevalent and give them greater power to coerce business, put jobs at risk and bring the economy to a standstill.
Nonsense, the unions said. The merger, Paddy Cremlin from the Maritime Union of Australia said, would help workers “fight back” against attacks from government and big business and would help preserve rights to fair pay and industrial action. Employer concerns, he said, were baseless and were being driven by elitism and ideology.
This raises questions about the likely effect of the merger on workers, employers and the community in practice.
Short term, Brandon Ellem, Professor of Employment Relations at the University of Sydney says, the new organisation is most likely feeling besieged amid intense opposition to the merger.
Longer term, he says questions surround the ability of the CFMMEU to expand coverage into new areas and to disrupt supply chains to a degree beyond which the separate unions have been able previously.
On the first point, Ellem says there may be opportunities for the newly combined union to expand into areas such as metalliferous mining where current coverage is weak. In the iron ore sector in the Pilbara region, for example, he says the unions have no effective coverage at either BHP or Fortescue and have real coverage only in the rail section of Rio Tinto.
Doing this successfully would help the union to broaden its membership and revenue base, Ellem says.
As for concerns about ‘pit to port’ disruption, Ellem empathises with employer sentiments but says it is difficult to say whether the combined union will be able to pull this off. At the moment, he says they have coverage on the ports through the MUA and also on the linkages between port and pit (the rail line). At the pit end, however, coverage is mostly dominated by other unions such as the Australian Workers Union and specific unions covering groups such as metal workers and electricians.
In terms of building, Ellem says the combined union could have more clout on resource projects such as oil and gas where the MUA has coverage on ports whilst the CFMEU has coverage of construction. On commercial building, Ellem sees little direct impact. Indirectly, he says there could be an effect if the amalgamation results in any change in how the union operates and its approach toward issues such as working with community groups or representing workers.
As for disrupting building supply chains, Ellem does not believe the merger will make much difference over and above the current situation. Besides, he says, laws which restrict industrial action apply equally post the merger as they did beforehand.
On worker benefits from the merger, Ellem says these centre around the potential for a better resourced union with a larger membership and revenue base. Should these resources be used well, workers could benefit through stronger advocacy and representation as well as better member services.
All up, Ellem supports the merger but qualifies this by saying that benefits to members depend on the ability of the new union to deliver in practice.
“Looking at it as a union researcher, I can see the sense and logic of it,” he said. “They have set up a framework where they could be a more effective union. Now they have to make that happen.”
Dr Marjorie Jerrard, a senior lecturer for employment relations at Monash Business School, dismisses employer concerns. Since the Fair Work Act allows industrial action only during notified bargaining periods, any coordination of action which is done within the law would be possible only where bargaining periods are synchronised, she says. Whilst it is true that both unions have sometimes acted outside the law, this has not been as common as portrayed in the media. In fact, both unions use strike action as a last resort. At any rate, the Act has been generally successful in restricting action to defined bargaining periods. Moreover, Jerrard says employer groups have failed to demonstrate how supply chain disruption could be coordinated with the impunity they suggest.
As for benefits to members and workers, Jerrard agrees that these will accrue primarily though having a better resourced union which can share resources such as in-house lawyers, financial/investment advisors and occupational health and safety experts. The merged union will also be more easily able to coordinate campaigns such as the Your Rights At Work Campaign which the CFMEU and the MUA worked on together outside of the framework of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
Beyond that, Jerrard said there would be little change operationally as the newly combined union continues to operate according to a divisional structure with each division responsible for its own bargaining, industrial action, legal costs, fines and other issues.
Jerrard says the merger will have interesting implications for the TCFUA. Having suffered several decades of declines in membership, power and influence, members of this union will benefit the most from the greater strength of the new body. With this union having merged into the forestry division of the CFMEU, however, much of its identity will be lost to its members, many of whom may feel lower levels of ownership and connection to their newly significantly enlarged organisation.
The former CFMEU/now CFMMEU did not respond to requests for comment. The Master Builders Association declined to comment citing an appeal against the Fair Work Commission’s decision to enable the merger to proceed.
Australia now has a bigger union in construction, mining and on ports.
How this will play out will be interesting to see.