The Exclusive Brethren is a secretive Christian organisation that attracts a great deal of controversy over its involvement in politics. Although its members are forbidden from voting, the group spends enormous amounts of money running advertisements smearing left-wing political parties - and the families of left-wing politicians.
The Exclusive Brethren's support for conservative politicians has paid off, with legislation specially created to allow Exclusive Brethren employers (its leader, Bruce Hales, is a very wealthy businessman) the right to deny union access to their workers, as the Sydney Morning Herald has reported:
The secretive Exclusive Brethren sect appears to have won special dispensation from the Howard Government to exclude union officials from its members' businesses without consulting staff.
"If the boss is an Exclusive Brethren member, the union can't visit the workplace, no matter what the workers say about it."
In 2001, amendments to the Workplace Relations Act substantially expanded the right of some businesses to exclude unions, banning not just closed shops but preventing any union official entry to a workplace, if staff agreed. The staff consultation clause was removed under workplace legislation this year.
The Industrial Relations Commission has confirmed that, since 2002, every one of the more than 30 employers who claimed a 'conscientious objection' exemption belonged to the conservative religious organisation.
As the Sydney Morning Herald article suggests, WorkChoices made the exemption even worse. Under the old laws, bosses who are members of the sect could apply to the Industrial Relations Commission to block union access to their workplace - but the exemption could only be given if all of their employees agreed.
Now, they can block union access even if their workers want the union on site. It is not clear why an employer's 'conscientious' objection to unions should be binding on workers who don't share those beliefs, but the Howard government has voted to allow the Exclusive Brethren sect to deny workers' right to organise.
Senator Bob Brown has been trying in vain to draw attention to this issue for years. In 2004, he noted:
...[I]t appears clear the Exclusive Brethren has won special favour in the Industrial Relations package to protect itself from scrutiny of workplace abuse. The precondition that all workers agree to blocking union entry to the sect's workplaces, has been quietly dropped ...
Senator Brown called for a public register of all Exclusive Brethren workplaces.
This is yet another example of how WorkChoices imposes an industrial dictatorship - the boss's religious views are allowed to override the employees' fundamental right to organise, and to be contacted by union representatives in the workplace. If the boss is an Exclusive Brethren member, the union can't visit the workplace, no matter what the workers say about it.
This article is reproduced from Solidarity, a blog devoted to working Australians, trade unions, and industrial relations, written by Trevor Cormack. Trevor, who is 28, is based in Perth, works part-time, and is (of course) a member of his union. Visit Solidarity for frequent updates on the Howard government's anti-worker laws and other issues that affect working Australians.