The Senate has passed a new union demerger law that allows members of the CFMEU manufacturing division to break away from the union. 

The legislation, which was expedited by the government, aims to dismantle the powerful CFMEU, amidst ongoing internal conflicts and external controversies.

The law received bipartisan support from Labor and the Coalition but was opposed by the Greens.

The legislation follows threats made by CFMEU Victorian leader John Setka regarding the appointment of the new AFL umpire boss, Steve McBurney. 

Setka’s leadership has been under intense scrutiny, marked by accusations of authoritarianism and lack of consultation with union members.

Setka's tenure has been tumultuous. 

In September 2021, during a Melbourne lockdown, members of the CFMEU's Victorian-Tasmanian division protested against Setka’s decisions on work conditions without member consultation. The protests escalated into a riot outside the union headquarters, with Setka addressing the crowd through a megaphone.

Union officials have highlighted that the root cause of the protests was grievances about Setka's leadership style and not the COVID-19 vaccination mandates. 

“The genesis of the riots was Setka's lack of consultation with members,” a CFMEU official stated.

Employment Minister Tony Burke supported the bill, stating it was fair to allow union members to determine their own fate. 

This sentiment was echoed by Bill Kelty, former ACTU secretary, who played a significant role in the creation of ‘super unions’.

However, within the CFMEU, there is significant discontent towards Setka. Reports say many members and officials are disillusioned by his leadership and the union’s diminishing power. There is anxiety about Setka’s potential for vengeance even as his tenure approaches its end.

Setka has faced multiple controversies over the past few years. 

He was convicted of harassment in 2019, employed private investigators to surveil union members, and was expelled from the Labor Party. 

His confrontational approach has also led to high-profile disputes, such as the recent threat to the AFL over the appointment of Steve McBurney.

Former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty criticised Setka’s threats against the AFL, stating; “If you’re saying, ‘Let’s take on the AFL’, what is the impact of doing that? You’re just hurting footy supporters. The AFL is still a majority working-class sport – so why would you want the working class to pay more?”

As John Setka’s leadership draws to a close, the CFMEU faces a critical juncture. 

The new legislation enabling the manufacturing division to separate from the union marks a significant shift in Australia’s union landscape. 

The coming months will determine how these changes will impact the union and its members.