A battle to establish unions that benefit members instead of social and political agendas is winning ground but has a hard fight ahead, writes Red Union advocate Chris Dekker.
It is difficult to find a contemporary Australian institution that has not been systematically captured and then overrun by far-left identity politics. The public service, media, education, and big business all pander to issues that were spawned on the fringe of social media, with scant regard to how it affects their stakeholders.
In every case, this change has happened in the same way. A very small number of radicals infiltrate, agitate, and then target ‘problematic’ people and opinions. Normal people do not respond for fear of being branded in association with any number of unsavoury ‘isms’, then eventually reach the conclusion that the risk of telling the truth outweighs the risk of saying nothing. A culture of silence ensues. The radicals then subtly change not just the institution’s rules, but also the rules of the institutional environment to reduce or even end the possibility of future competition.
Unions are no different. Bill Kelty, one of the most influential trade union leaders in Australian history (ACTU secretary 1983-2000) and author of the Hawke-Keating union accords, told the Australian Financial Review in 2022 he would now be seen by modern union leaders as a “right-wing crank” because “the Trots run them”. Kelty knew that when the ‘Trots’ (invoking the non-communist left’s shorthand for the ‘hard left’) get control they change the rules to keep control.
ALTERNATIVE TRADE UNIONS
The Red Union Support Hub (RUSH) operates differently to the conventional trade union model with which you might be familiar. The problem for disaffected workers who previously have wanted to set up a competing union is that the barriers to creating a breakaway industrial association in hyper-regulated, modern day Australia are immense. To alleviate these stresses, long-time industrial relations specialist Graeme Haycroft proposed the innovative idea of having a service company, Red Union, provide all the tools and staff required to set up an incorporated association and service their members, with one simple caveat: that the industrial association commits itself to spend nothing on political causes. This simple modus operandi has seen us steadily grow and take money away from these woke, hyper-partisan behemoths which have masqueraded as unions for almost a decade and counting.
Other unions charge twice as much.
Australian workers have, or should have, the right to freely form and join trade unions of their choosing. Labor hero Gough Whitlam ratified the International Labour Organization’s Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention back in 1973, which enshrined these rights. The ALP has come to loathe these principles, understanding if there were fewer barriers to freely form and join competing unions, their existing power base would collapse. By contrast, the so-called leaders of the LNP/Coalition simply do not understand how competitive unionism works, or how close we are to ending the ALP financial hegemony.
The first industrial association that came under our wings was the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland (NPAQ), before later moving into the education sector with the Teachers Professional Association of Queensland (TPAQ) in 2019. Following a massive expansion in our member base after daring to fight for workers who resented being forced to get a vaccine, we expanded nationally and to all sectors in 2021. Our membership base now sits at nearly 17,000, growing steadily. Compare and contrast this to traditional trade union membership, which has steadily declined in Australia since the 1970s.
Part of the reason for this—beyond our commitment to actually fight for members when they need us—is that our typical competitor union charges almost twice as much as we do. The ANMF (SA Branch) charges registered nurses $815.70, compared with our flat rate of $442 annually across almost all of our industrial associations. Some registered unions are even charging their members more than $1,000 per year for the privilege of sending union officials on junkets, or campaigning on political issues about which the average member could not care less. Although union membership fees vary—sometimes as low as a few hundred, or as high as a couple of thousand dollars—we estimate every member who leaves an ALP-aligned union to join a Red Union takes an average of about $700 out of the ALP-union system each year.
COMPETITION IS ALWAYS GOOD
Every industry requires healthy competition. Not having any competition creates an inelastic demand—the ability to charge twice as much as you need without sacrificing members—which is detrimental to frontline workers already dealing with ever-increasing cost-of-living expenses. The IPA readership does not need to be sold the ideals and benefits of competition in industry, but over time Australians have accepted the status quo of trade unions somehow being immune to competition. Even after a Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption, the ACCC has never seen it worthwhile to take further action against these economic handbrakes on Australian worker prosperity.
With our no frills, back-to-basics servicing of members, we have mastered the fine art of doing more with less. In our reviews of the annual reports of registered unions, we are still shocked to discover that we spend about four or five times more as a proportion of our funds on legal battles for our members. Instead of massive staff rosters and pay-packets for the Red Union crew who service these industrial associations, we have turned to technology to improve the quality and accessibility of service. In the 21/22 financial year alone, we filed more than 1,000 matters across Australia’s industrial relations tribunals.
Our members are not told to ‘check their privilege’.
The other beautiful thing about competition is that all end-users of a service benefit—even those of our most avowed detractors. Since our founding and rapid rise to serve all industries, we have seen registered unions create websites that do not look ancient and ridiculously ideological and some have even slowed the pace of their exorbitant fee increases. The less we continue to spend on unnecessary vanity projects, the more our competitors will need to cut. The more we grow in size while sticking to our core values, the more untenable ALP fake unions with their massive financial contributions in kind to the ALP will become.
HOW UNIONS REMAIN POWERFUL
In light of their waning popularity, trade unions have sought to line their pockets in other ways. We are all aware of the massive industry super sector, but how about some of the other schemes that are not as well known?
Take for example the professional indemnity (PI) insurance scheme required for all health practitioners, regardless of whether they are self-employed, or like most practitioners, employed in a large hospital by an employer who will be vicariously liable for their employee’s professional liability whatever happens. But PI insurance has not always been required for employed nursing practitioners.
One reason our nursing cohort of members is so large (more than 10,000) is precisely because the national scheme (AHPRA) requires professional indemnity insurance as part of registration. With individually arranged professional indemnity insurance often costing more than the union membership fee, why wouldn’t a nurse just join a trade union which includes it as part of their membership? For many of our members, and members of our competitors, professional indemnity insurance is the only reason they maintain membership.
IRRELEVANT UNION CULTURE WARS
Unlike some of our competitors, we do not spend members’ money on supporting women’s prison reform, international relief, or the Climate Change and Health Alliance. Another well-known practice that obfuscates political donations is the affiliation fees these unions pay to their peak bodies, such as the Queensland Council of Unions or the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). These bodies effectively act as an intermediary to disperse funds towards the ALP during elections, or indeed run political campaigns of their own. If you are a member of a trade union or have a relative who is, I encourage you to look through their annual reports and the reports of their peak bodies to see how much money goes towards issues unrelated to improving workplace salaries and conditions. Red Union’s affiliated industrial associations do not dare to behave this way. We do not have the budget to waste money on educating our members about cultural norms and the need to ‘check their privilege’. Every last cent of each member’s money is spent on fighting for them, and spreading our influence across Australian workplaces.
We pride ourselves on ‘protection without the politics’. This stance does not mean we do not admire the generosity of Australian workers who wish to help those in need. If workers truly want to back lofty social causes and ideals, we encourage them to save the hundreds of dollars in additional annual fees our competitors charge by joining a Red Union and send their savings directly to the organisations and causes about which they care so greatly.
Views on industrial relations and productivity used to reflect the dichotomy of the major parties. One relied upon the politics of emotion, using fear to stoke anger about cutting workers’ pay and conditions. The other used cold-blooded economic realities to sell the constituents on tough measures needed. Today the LNP have abandoned the debate totally because they do not think they can win. The other issue that the non-ALP political parties in Australia have wilfully ignored is the fact that our public service is no longer solely composed of hard-working frontline staff doing everything they can to protect us and keep the lights on. The public service is now part of the ALP network weaponised to keep ALP governments in power, where meaningless jobs can be created out of thin air to serve the bureaucracy and the ALP. (See also Kaylee Boccalatte’s ‘The Burden of Bullshit Jobs’ in the Summer 2022 edition of the IPA Review.)
Nearly 20 per cent of Queensland employees are public servants of some description. Imagine how many more nurses, teachers, and paramedics we could employ and how much more we could pay them if we rid ourselves of diversity officers, needless middle management, and box-tickers.Healthcare and education are fundamentally community enterprises whose management has been centralised so far away from frontline staff and patients that it is totally counter-productive. Government, and specifically bureaucratic administration, always grows at the expense of everything else. The solution is not to claim superior political management will reduce the numbers of bureaucratic administrators. It will not. The solution will lie with making these community health and education institutions locally autonomous. Locally elected boards can supervise local nurses running hospitals and local teachers running schools.
In 2015 Queensland’s Newman government got sent home at the ballot box, in no small part because of their public sector cuts. And this was not a case of just getting the optics wrong: frontline workers who help our sick and elderly were on the chopping block. The aforementioned box tickers and middle management often went to private consulting gigs where they did the same needless work for the government, but taking home much thicker pay packets. State governments have not dared shake up public sector employment in any major way since. We want a system that rewards our hardest frontline workers individually, on the basis of their merits.
FEAR AND LOATHING
To the IPA Review reader who, until now, might not have been familiar with the Red Unions or is not yet sold on its significance to reforming industrial relations, please observe the reaction and fear we have caused in these ALP-registered unions. While some on the centre-right because of their past innumeracy have only just started to grasp who we are, and how much the ALP unions are threatened by us, we have been on the radar of Labor and ALP-aligned unions for half a decade. We threaten not just the existing system of corruption and rorts, but their very livelihoods. They do not simply fear us, they loathe us. Although I know we serve members much better than the ALP unions, by the above metric alone I think we are making a difference. Let me run you through just a small handful of the retribution we have experienced for daring to save workers money and solely represent their interests.
Legislative amendments were made to try and cut us out of the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission, and make it a civil penalty for us to even say we can represent workers. Furthermore, the reform includes provisions that allow the Queensland State Office of Fair Trading to remove our industrial associations’ incorporated structure. Fortunately, we have managed to work around this and continue to fight in the Commission.
Union reps tear down our material.
These changes followed Queensland Health in 2019 sending a memo to staff stating we could not represent their industrial interests. This memo was authored by Anne Garrahy, who at one point was one of the highest-salaried employees of the QNMU. Funnily enough, Right To Information requests show the QNMU were even asked for assistance in drafting the memo. The memo was found to be misleading by our barrister in cross-examination, but the philosophy behind QNMU and Queensland Health’s arguments was later adopted in the legislation.
Queensland Health tried to sack NPAQ president Marg Gilbert, who worked for Queensland Health at the time, for making remarks to the media about the quality of nursing education. We still regularly hear of union representatives in hospitals tearing down our material in place of their own. In another appeal, the Labor-appointed president of the Industrial Court had to recuse himself after making submissions to Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace MP about non-union representation while he was hearing our case (conveniently one day before she introduced the Industrial Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill). It is further worth noting that Industrial Court president and Supreme Court Justice Peter Davis acknowledged his past political affiliation with the ALP and his previous support for current state MP Peter Russo in that decision. On top of all this, we have had multiple legal stoushes with the Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union, Queensland Police Union of Employees, and other unions which have spared no expense with their members’ hard-earned money to prevent us from properly advocating the interests of their respective professions.
We are even causing such disruption that the ACTU have set up a dedicated website to attack us. We know one of our main competitors has weekly strategy sessions to determine how they can undermine us. That is a lot of effort to go to, so hats off to them.
Meanwhile, we will stick to focusing on representing employees in their workplaces and the courts, and sticking it to these unions where it hurts the most: their bottom dollar.
THE FIGHT CONTINUES
We face an uphill battle against a system which has stacked itself with cronies across all branches of government for all but five of the last 33 years. When in recent history can you think of a union taking such punitive measures in reaction to the decisions of a government adversary? They understand what a threat we are to them and are determined to see us lose, just as we are ever-more determined to bring an end to Labor and their unions’ cruisy culture of cohabitation. Be under no illusions. There can be no happy ending for both of us.
We will endure this struggle and not stop fighting until this cosy relationship crumbles and workers can once again be the masters of their own destiny.
Chris Dekker is a former campus coordinator with the IPA’s Generation Liberty program. He now works as an industrial relations strategist at the Red Union Support Hub, which services Australian workers without a cent of members’ money going to political parties. All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. Further information: https://www.redunion.com.au/