There was a time when an Australian Council of Trade Union congress would be covered by a media pack the size of the parliamentary press gallery. But with private sector union membership languishing at just 12% of the workforce, these days are long gone. Events during the recently held May triennial congress highlighted some of the reasons for organised labour’s demise.
During a week in which the issue of gay marriage was being canvassed in the national parliament, the congress was silent on the matter, largely due to the opposition of ACTU senior vice-president Joe de Bruyn.
Bruyn is now national president of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union (SDA), having stepped aside last year from the position of national secretary that he held since 1978. A Catholic conservative who has been a long-time opponent of abortion and same sex marriage, he has been described by the federal employment minister, Eric Abetz, as a role model for unionism — “He is the type of official that gives unionism a good name.”
That would be among fellow conservative males who want to control women’s bodies and deny the equality of love. Abetz distinguished himself last year by infamously linking abortion to breast cancer. When a poll was released last year showing 72% support for same sex marriage, de Bruyn doubted its veracity while refusing to conduct a membership plebiscite that would have showed what his member’s views actually were.
The ACTU congress was scheduled to give de Bruyn a Meritorious Service Award, but this was canned after pointed opposition from the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU). The AMIEU has been resolutely opposed to a national industrial agreement that the SDA signed with the supermarket chain Coles which reduced wages and conditions for their members in supermarkets.
The Victorian secretary of the AMIEU was reported as saying, “From our point of view, the SDA stands for sell-out deals and that’s what they’ve done for our members, for future meatworkers coming into Coles and Woolworths, and that’s why we’re opposed to Joe de Bruyn getting any more awards from the ACTU.”
The AMIEU claims that the deal will mean that new butchers at Coles will be $12,000 a year worse off if they work Thursdays to Sundays and cabinet attendants who wrap and shelve meat will be $8,000 a year worse off.
Between them, Coles and Woolworths control about 74% of Australia’s $85 billion grocery sector and according to Fairfax Media the SDA pays up to 10% of membership dues to major employers, including Coles and Woolworths, for the cost of payroll deductions that the employers agree to. This apparently amounts to about $5 million a year.
Joe de Bruyn is also a member of the National Executive of the ALP, and while the ACTU congress was taking place, the royal commission into trade unions was hearing evidence that allegedly showed how the AWU inflates its membership in order to give it more influence in the ALP.
The commission heard that in 2007 the AWU Victorian branch signed an agreement with the construction group BMD after which it sent the company an invoice for $14,300 for “OH&S inspections at various sites in Victoria.” Following this, 44 BMD employees were listed as union members. In 2010, when the agreement was renewed, the AWU sent BMD an invoice for $19,800 for “OHS training,” despite the AWU being unable to produce any evidence of OHS training. Counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoljar SC, said that this invoice was exactly the amount of the AWU membership fees multiplied by the number of employees at BMD.
The commission then heard that the AWU Victorian branch extended a WorkChoices agreement with a company called Cleanevent that left its members worse off than they would have been under the relevant award. It saved Cleanevent $2 million a year and left a level one casual cleaner working after normal hours or on the weekends on a rate of $18.14 an hour as opposed to the new award rate of $50.17 an hour.
According to Stoljar, the deal inflated the union branch membership. It also came with a $25,000 a year payment to the Victorian AWU. The commission is now examining if union officials breached the provisions of the Fair Work Act by entering into an agreement which benefited themselves and the company but was detrimental to the union’s own members. The union secretary at the time is now an ALP member of the Victorian Legislative Council.
With union behaviour like this, it’s little wonder that membership in the private sector is down to 12%, yet the ACTU seems to be pinning its hopes for rejuvenation on the election of a Labor government. It has increased its affiliation fees by $2 for each individual member so that it can campaign in 35 seats with full-time organisers in 21 of them.
This is a re-run of the 2007 election campaign that the ACTU ran for the ALP at a cost of $60 million in direct and indirect support, according to Electoral Commission figures. It succeeded in getting rid of the Howard government’s WorkChoices anti-union legislation, but what unions got in its place was the equally disingenuous Fair Work Act which replicated provisions already found to have breached International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions. Refusing to learn the lessons of history can only lead to a repeat of past mistakes.