Coalition to use Labor's planned expulsion of John Setka to crack down on unions

The Coalition is preparing to use the push to remove Victorian unionist John Setka from the Labor party to pressure the Senate to pass laws further punishing unions for breaching laws that restrict industrial action.

The move comes as a new paper from the Centre for Future Work argues unions should not abandon political campaigns because rebuilding membership will not be possible without laws granting stronger labour rights.

On Wednesday senior frontbencher Angus Taylor confirmed the government was still “absolutely committed” to passing the ensuring integrity bill which would allow the federal court to disqualify union officials and deregister unions for serious or repeated law breaches.

On Thursday the Labor leader Anthony Albanese hit back at Setka, the Victorian construction secretary of the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union, who has stared down calls to resign over claims he had criticised anti-domestic violence advocate Rosie Batty.

Albanese said Setka’s views were “incompatible” with the Labor party and mainstream Australia, and highlighted inconsistencies with the version of events provided by Maritime Union of Australia official Chris Cain, who claims Setka had not even mentioned Batty in a union meeting last week.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, has agreed that Setka’s actions and words were “not compatible with our values, and have impacted on our movement”. McManus will meet with Setka on Thursday in a bid to force him to resign from the CFMMEU.

Setka said on Wednesday that suggestions he “denigrated” Batty were “fabricated”.

“I have always been a huge supporter of Rosie Batty and admired the tireless work she has done and what she has achieved,” he said.

“It’s just disgraceful for people to imply that … I am actually offended and it’s vile.”

Despite his criticism of Setka, Albanese told Radio National that Australians were “sick of the government attacking trade unions”, signalling that Labor will continue to oppose the ensuring integrity bill.

The bill is supported by One Nation and Cory Bernardi, meaning that Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie are likely to have the casting votes when it is reintroduced to parliament.

The director of the Centre for Future Work, an offshoot of the leftwing thinktank the Australia Institute, has warned that unions must not abandon political campaigns – in part because the Coalition “may now try to shift labour policies even further in favour of employers”.

In a briefing note, released on Thursday, director Jim Stanford argued that better labour market rules and union organising efforts were “two sides of the same coin”, implicitly refuting claims unions should abandon political campaigns after the $25m Change the Rules campaign failed to eject the Morrison government.

Critics of the campaign, including former ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons and National Union of Workers national secretary Tim Kennedy, have warned the movement should not become the “campaigning arm” of Labor but rather focus on organising workplaces.

The ACTU has launched a review of the campaign, with McManus promising to recalibrate if necessary but not to abandon the field of political campaigning.

Stanford defended the unions’ campaign, arguing it lifted support for increasing the minimum wage and limiting the spread of insecure work, and even contributed to the Coalition pledging to combat systemic underpayment.

Stanford’s paper cited the fact that strong majorities – of more than 70% in some cases – support restoring penalty rates and lifting the minimum wage, suggesting that public pressure has contributed to the Fair Work Commission lifting the minimum wage by a total of 10% over the last three years.

It noted that Australia ranks 22nd – fifth last in the OECD – on labour rights, according to the World Economic Forum, and 20th on union membership, with just 14.5% of workers in trade unions.

While some countries, such as France, have strong labour rights despite low union density, there are none with union density of more than 20% without strong protections for workers’ rights.

“The international evidence is clear that eventually winning changes in the rules of the labour market … will be essential, as a complement (not a substitute) for unions’ continuing efforts to expand membership, extend collective bargaining, and lift wages,” it concluded.

Stanford said that Australia’s legal framework is “very hostile to unions and collective bargaining”, citing the shift to enterprise bargaining in the early 1990s and Howard-era restrictions on industrial activity.

“People who say the rules are what they are – in the short term they’re correct but in the long term unions in Australia still have to keep trying to achieve a more balanced legal climate or they will never break out of this box.”

Stanford told Guardian Australia the viability of the collective bargaining system is “in doubt” because 35% of employees are covered by enterprise agreements but only 14% pay union dues.

“You have a situation where free riding is guaranteed by law and protected by law – it’s almost celebrated by law.

“It’s fundamentally unviable to offer a service you’re required to give to anyone and they’re not required to pay for it.”

Although the Change the Rules campaign did not argue for the introduction of compulsory bargaining fees or a return of the closed shop, Stanford said it had argued for “incremental improvements”, such as allowing multi-employer bargaining.

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