17 October 2015
by Lucille Keen

CFMEU and MUA to merge

A planned merger of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Maritime Union of Australia merge, creating what is likely to be the most powerful and militant union in Australia, is a threat to jobs, productivity and the economy, the federal government said.

The deal between CFMEU national secretary Michael O'Connor and MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin was made public on Friday and will lead to all branches of the construction union being incorporated into the new left-wing entity covering about 100,000 workers.

Federal Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the merger should "send shivers down the spine of all Australians" given the "significantly disturbing history" of the two unions.

"One can only imagine how this control will be exacerbated by this merger," Ms Cash said. "The protectionist, insular policy approach adopted by sections of the union movement is highly damaging to Australia."

The CFMEU, which has about 90,000 members, is the most powerful union in the building industry but has lost members in its mining division to of the end of the resources boom. Its construction division has suffered several court losses and is being pursued by the royal commission into union corruption.

The maritime union, which has about 10,000 members, has also been losing members. But it is wealthy and has enormous leverage over the economically vital cargo ports.

Senior officials of both unions met on Friday to begin formalising a merger, which will be put to MUA members at the union's National Conference in February.

Mr Crumlin said the merger would create "Australia's most powerful union" but admitted there might be some ramifications within the Australian Labor Party. He denied the MUA was joining in order to save it from extinction.

Difficult for moderate unions
The merger will create a power bloc within the Labor Party and would make it difficult for moderate unions, especially in Western Australia and Victoria.

A spokesman for Labor leader Bill Shorten said the merger was a matter for the two unions.

The MUA had up to $49 million in assets in mid 2014 that will shore up the CFMEU, which has faced millions of dollars of penalties from legal action.

One of the main beneficiaries will be CFMEU National Secretary Michael O'Connor, who has spent decades building up his influence in the Labor Party – his brother Brendan is the opposition spokesman employment. The merger will reinforce Mr O'Connor's position as Australia's most powerful union leader, one former union national secretary said.

"The opportunity we've been presented with will bring great strength to the national and international union movement," Mr O'Connor said.

University of Adelaide industrial relations expert Professor Andrew Stewart said the merger would be a scary prospect for some employers. "You are taking two of the strongest and most militant, and aggressive unions and putting them together," he said.

He said "more likely than not" that the government would try to deregister the CFMEU.

Independent senator Jacqui Lambie said she would tell Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull the CFMEU should be deregistered when they meet next week.

Former employment minister and now Liberal backbencher Eric Abetz labelled the merger as a "disastrous cocktail" for the workplace landscape, particularly resources companies. He said the merged union could still face deregistration unless they can convince the Fair Work Commission that they have changed their behaviour.

"And with the history of the MUA this will be a big ask. It's not like the CFMEU is seeking to join the Country Women's Association," he said.