Bill Shorten forced to front Commission

June 18, 2015
Labor leader Bill Shorten will have to answer questions in front of the Trade Union Royal Commission.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s persistent response to media questions about allegations raised in the unions’ Royal Commission concerning his former union, the Australian Workers Union (AWU), has been to refuse to provide a “running commentary”.

After being requested by the commission to appear before it last week, he is now reported as saying: “I welcome the opportunity to talk about my 21-year record of standing up for workers”.

Unfortunately for Shorten, the commission hasn’t invited him to provide evidence of his status of working-class hero. The full extent of what the commission is likely to question him about when he appears before it in late August or early September is not known at this stage.

What is known is that the commission’s request comes after media reports that he oversaw a 2005 deal with a Melbourne building company, Winslow Constructors, in which the Victorian Branch of the AWU invoiced the company for $38,228 to pay for 105 union membership tickets. The result for Shorten was said to be an inflated AWU membership which boosted his factional power in the ALP.

The result for the workers at Winslow Constructors was described by former employees as a trade-off for industrial peace. One of them is reported as saying: “The company paid for us and so the union didn’t come very often … That’s what happens when the company pays for you. You wouldn’t see them for 12 months sometimes.”

The current Victorian state secretary of the AWU has also criticised the deal for weakening the union’s power in the workplace.

In earlier evidence before the commission, Cesar Melhem, Shorten’s successor as Victorian State Secretary of the AWU in 2006, was accused of doing similar deals, as well as raising more than $500,000 for a slush fund, Industry 2020, which was allegedly spent on himself and political donations to ALP factional allies.

Melhem was appointed to a vacancy in the Victorian Legislative Council in May 2013. According to counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoljar SC, his cash donations paved the way for “a truly charmed” parliamentary seat. Following his appearance before the commission, Melhem was forced to stand aside as ALP government whip in the Legislative Council.

The AWU is not the only union accused of short-changing its members. As Green Left Weekly has previously reported, there has been widespread condemnation of a proposed three-year workplace agreement between Coles and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) on the grounds that it would leave workers worse off than under minimum award conditions.

This has now been confirmed by the Fair Work Commission after an independent analysis found that a large number of the 27,000 casuals at Coles, including most 17- and 18-year-old employees, would be worse off under the deal by up to a combined $15 million a year — $45 million over the three-year life of the proposed agreement. Coles, of course, would be $45 million better off.

The Fair Work Commission has refused to ratify the agreement and instead proposed a number of undertakings to Coles and the SDA before it will again consider it. These include requirements that Coles pay higher rates to young workers and higher casual loadings. They would also give workers at Coles an entitlement to back-pay if they are worse off under the agreement in any other way.

These recommendations are an indictment of the SDA, yet its national secretary Gerard Dwyer seems unconcerned. While he is reported as having confirmed that the Fair Work Commission has identified problems with the agreement, he went on to reject any suggestion that the agreement was not in the best interests of SDA members at Coles.

Although the SDA is not specifically mentioned in the terms of reference of the unions Royal Commission (unlike the AWU), these terms are sufficiently wide to enable it to investigate the deal with Coles which seems similar to those deals under investigation in the AWU.

If it declines to do so, Bill Shorten may well rely on it in his defence.

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