Fair Work for Whom? Shorten?

Considerable media attention is being given to the revelation at the Royal Commission  into Trade Union Governance and Corruption that, under its then Victorian Secretary Bill Shorten, the AWU had concluded agreements with two companies under which their workers’ wages/penalties were considerably less than permitted under the Fair Work Commission award in return for the companies paying to the AWU those workers’ dues as union members (sic). It appears that the AWU also agreed not to disrupt the activities of these companies.

Following the revelation, the AWU has terminated the agreement with the Cleanevent company. Initial opposition to this by the federal office of the AWU (because of concern there as to the exposure of  the terms?) meant it took two years to terminate at the Fair Work Commission.

In an article in today’s Sunday Telegraph (see below “Piers Akerman: For whom did Bill Shorten toil?”), Piers Akerman indicates that such agreements extend well beyond the two companies referred to at the Royal Commission. It appears that those listed as union members by the AWU were often not aware of their listing but the “addition” to AWU’s members gave it increased voting power at meetings of the ALP ie if correct, Shorten’s “success” at the AWU has contributed to his success in the ALP (AWU is reported to have 100,000 members). It would also have added to the statistics published by the ABS of union members generally.

An article in yesterday’s Weekend Australian (see below “Shorten will appear before royal commission”) confirms that similar AWU agreements have been made with other companies/groups, including jockeys and netballers. It appears also that the AWU deal with Cleanevent has limited (if not prevented) competition from other large cleaning companies.

The reaction by Shorten and Labor is to repeat the accusation that the government is using the Royal Commission as a political attack on unions. Former unionist Richard Marles (now Shadow Minister for Immigration) is reported as saying “There’s nothing to hide there – far from that, there’s an awful lot for Bill Shorten to feel proud about.” That widely regarded “moderate” Marles has been Labor’s commentator rather than the agro O’Connor points to concern in top Labor ranks.

The difficulty for Shorten is that he has been exposed by the revelations of his involvement. These will now increase. In addition, Shorten is criticised by the Fairfax press: The Age editorialised yesterday under the heading “Bill Shorten’s credibility takes a hit over AWU deal” (see editorial below). The claim in today’s Sunday Age that the Shop, Distribution and Allied Employees’ Association has negotiated a deal with Coles “that in many cases appears well below the award, the basic wages safety net” indicates that The Age will pursue the under-payment issue further.

Unsurprisingly, the ABC has so far raised no questions about Shorten’s credibility.

Prime Minister Abbott has limited his reaction to a suggestion that Shorten has dudded the workers and should explain his decisions when at the AWU. But the broader question is why the Fair Work Commission has allowed unions to negotiate deals with businesses which appear to be inconsistent with its own awards. Indeed, there is an opportunity for the government to raise questions about the role of the Fair Work Commission created by Gillard. Its apparent difficulty in keeping unions under control and allowing forced “contributions” from businesses indicates the need for major reform in regulatory arrangements. Of course, some argue that it is employers which should not enter into “deals” with unions. But the alternative faced by businesses under existing arrangements is to risk disruption to their activities that would not be dealt with by Fair Work.

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