Young workers pay for union’s dire deals

The Australian, September 2, 2017, Grace Collier

A friend’s 15-year-old-daughter was at her new job at a Woolworths supermarket in Brisbane and was getting ready to leave at the end of shift. A man approached, holding a list, and asked for her by name. She assumed he was a manager. He told her to sign some paperwork and put it in front of her. As the girl is smart, she looked at it first. This is a union membership form, she said. I won’t sign anything until Mum checks it.

About two weeks later, again at work, the same man turned up. He asked for the form, and she pretended it had slipped her mind. A week after that, when she arrived for work, the man was there, waiting for her. He had her roster and mobile number, and had been texting. This time she told him straight: Mum said not to sign. Your mum is wrong, sign the form now, he said, and shoved it at her. Bravely, she told him she would report him for harassment if he didn’t go away.

On two of the three occasions described, by coincidence I was outside with the girl’s mother waiting to pick her up from work. So the events were related just after they occurred.

Unfortunately, this experience accords with a dozen stories I have heard from readers, of kids in their first job practically being forced into joining a union by officials who are aided and abetted by employers.

In response to the story, a Woolworths spokesperson said: “Woolworths respects the right to freedom of association and it is the right of each team member to decide whether to join a union or not.” But in the example above, the union official had the girl’s name, mobile number and roster details, and was allowed to wait for her at her work station. The information must have been provided by Woolworths.

The Fair Work Act does not provide for this conduct.

Woolworths claims to be the highest payer in its sector. Based on what it says is its present base rate of pay, a 15-year-old in Queensland is paid $9.92 an hour. But under the terms of the enterprise bargaining agreement, signed by the union, my friend’s daughter earned, overall, less than what she would have been paid under the relevant award.

This is because the EBA does not contain the penalty rates that the award does for the hours the girl works: the busy times, early evenings and weekends. During the week, between 6pm and midnight, the award prescribes a 25 per cent loading and the EBA has none. On Sundays, during the day, the award prescribes 95 per cent and the EBA 50 per cent.

In my opinion the Woolworths EBA would not pass the “better off overall test”, should not have been made and likely will be struck down.

This EBA is one of many being examined by a Senate inquiry brought about by Nick Xenophon. Last week, this inquiry was presented with a table that showed how in 2015-16, Woolworths transferred $4,970,275 to the Queensland branch of the Shop Distributive & Allied Employees Association, the same branch my friend’s daughter was being asked to join.

Woolworths says it does not make payments to unions and this money is for union dues, taken out of the pay packets of workers at their request.

The table also shows that between 2006 and last year, Wesfarmers, Woolworths, Myers and their subsidiaries transferred a total of $86,843,216 to the Queensland branch of the SDA. This money is for union membership fees, deducted from workers’ wages.

More than $86m in 10 years has gone from three businesses to one branch of one union. Imagine what the figure would be if we could tally the money sent from every company in the country to every branch of every union. Would it be billions? I think so. It raises the question, doesn’t it, of whether these employers ever stop to think that by their actions they are funding Labor, the party they supposedly regard as the enemy of business.

Workers are entitled to join unions and employers are entitled to deduct union fees from wages. Problems arise, though, when employers push too far one way, when they share information about new workers and allow union officials to harass and force workers, particularly young people in their first job, into joining. When this behaviour goes hand-in-hand with a dodgy EBA that provides below-award wages and the competitive advantage that goes with that, then serious questions arise.

This case study, and the dollar figures that go with it, is illustrative of Australia’s embarrassing secret: our industrial relations paradigm is not what the participants in the system like to pretend. Our story is not big business versus unions. It is big business and unions versus the rest of us: workers, consumers and small business operators.

The table was sent to federal Employment Minister Michaelia Cash for comment. In response she said: “There simply has not been knowledge, let alone transparency, of the various kinds of deals between employers and unions. Workers have a right to know what arrangements are in place where money changes hands, or when employers help to facilitate union membership. All workers who are affected have a right to know what each of the parties are getting in return for such deals.”

Within the government, there is growing awareness that big business and unions are part of the same racket, and that racket provides the income stream that funds the government’s political enemies. These businesses and their lobby groups have always taken the Coalition for mugs. They have a hide, don’t they? Especially considering their constant cries for industrial relations reform and their loud complaints when it isn’t delivered.