Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bill Shorten & the AWU

The press has a new Labor messiah in Bill Shorten, national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union. He seems pleasant enough and his views are the entirely predictable ones we would expect from a member of the non-neo-Grouper wing of Victorian Labor Unity. It is to his credit he has views to put forward. He is more competent than the media's last Labor messiah Mark Latham a middle-range policy wonk with an attitude problem promoted beyond his level of ability. Shorten's views on tax seen confused, but they play well with a press that dislikes Howard's social conservatism whilst wanting to preserve their economically privileged position. He seeks to replace Bob Sercombe in federal parliament. Never thought of Bob as one of Labor's great talents, but he has been saying some reasonable things on tax policy and foreign aid to the Pacific, competition stimulates productivity perhaps. His position as opposition spokesperson on Pacific Islands policy he attracted some amusement but this is an area of foreign policy successive governments have neglected and it is a credit to Labor that they initiated a focus in this area. It is a symptom of the decline of industrial journalism that Shorten's performance as AWU secretary goes unexamined. The AWU's history has many unfortunate aspects, carrying support for White Australia to a point of racial obsession well beyond the rest of the labour movement and dodgy sweetheart deals against more effective unions, or even overt cooperation with employers. These flaws are admitted in the union's history One Big Union. Under Shorten's leadership some aspects of this pattern have continued. The AWU cut a deal (a hostile view is here )for a federal consent award with the viciously anti-union Rio Tinto that gravely damaged the community-based campaign to rebuild unionism (in the form of the Pilbara Mineworkers' Union (PMU) in the Pilbara iron ore industry This campaign was working towards a state award that would have had more protections for workers than the very minimal federal award. In upholding the validity of the AWU agreement with Rio Tinto the full bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission said:

We acknowledge that in the achievement of that outcome, the AWU did not consult or did not adequately consult either its affected membership, or the workforce whose industrial interests it is empowered by the Act to represent. The officers of the AWU participated in ACTU conferences with other nationally registered unions about the union organisation campaign in the Pilbara, and the associated negotiations for collectively bargained conditions of employment for Hamersley workers. On the evidence, the AWU representatives failed to disclose to those meetings the collateral, confidential and without prejudice negotiations that Mr Shorten and Mr Ludwig for the AWU had taken to an advanced stage by April 2003. That conduct by the AWU may reasonably be described as duplicitous or untrustworthy by other participants in the ACTU or PMU processes.

The case for the AWU may have been strengthened by the pending demise of the state system under the new IR legislation but this wasn't something that was anticipated in 2003, and this doesn't affect the evaluation of the AWU's behaviour in negotiating in secret.


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