Horace, the TV critic of ancient Rome, once wrote: “Mutato nomine de te fabula narrator.” (“Change the name and the story is about you.”)

He’d probably been watching WorkChoices ads. As The Age reported yesterday, the “union thugs” gracing our televisions are actually real life criminals, hired by the Business Coalition for Workplace Reform.

That’s right. The three CFMEU droogs who burst into a dress-making firm intent upon ultra violence include Brendan Piper, imprisoned for drug trafficking and possession and crimes of violence and dishonesty, and a certain Mark “Porky” Lesser, previously convicted for drug offences. According to The Age, they’d been recruited after the ad’s makers trawled pubs searching for “rough”-looking types.

Why should we be surprised? Historically, union-bashing companies have often used the services of bashers of a different kind. Think of the balaclava-clad goons during the MUA dispute. The railway tycoon Jay Gould, who surely would have found a job for Porky Lesser somewhere in his operations, explained the principle with refreshing honesty.

“I can hire half the working class,” he said, “to kill the other half.”

The TV campaign against unaccountable unions was always bizarre, given that trade unions are subjected to far more democratic controls than almost any other institution in society today. How many of the employers represented by the Business Coalition face regular elections like union officials? How would they react to bringing major decisions to mass meetings of delegates?

Actually, we know the answer to that one. Here’s a report from a few years ago about the response of the Business Council of Australia (a Business Coalition member) to the token democracy of shareholders’ meetings:

Under a new code of conduct, released today by the Business Council of Australia, shareholders deemed to be “insulting” or “aggressive” can be turfed out of meetings by security guards. The rules also put an onus on Chairmen to discourage and curtail “irrelevant” questions, with relevance defined by the Chairman.

As for construction workers as mindless goons, we might recall the crucial role builders labourers played in the early gay liberation movement, well in advance of the chattering classes. Or that the term “green” as a reference to the environment came from the conservation campaigning of the NSW BLF in the early seventies.

In those years, the BLF adopted radically democratic practices (constant mass meetings, limited terms for officials, etc). And how did the employers react?

Melbourne Uni’s Verity Burgmann explains:

The green-ban movement collapsed in 1974 when the federal branch leadership of the BLF under Norm Gallagher removed the New South Wales branch leadership. This “intervention” was justified on the grounds that the New South Wales branch had overstepped the bounds of traditional union business; it was carried out to the approval of property developers, conservative politicians and the media, who had tried unsuccessfully in so many ways to intimidate the New South Wales branch into dropping its green-bans. Overstepping the bounds of union business had constituted a genuine threat to the developers; Norm Gallagher was their man of the hour.

As is Porky Lesser today.

Peter Fray

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