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Labor: putting unions first

By John Slater - posted Friday, 1 July 2016


Fifty-five years ago, unionist turned Labor leader Arthur Calwell lost the second closest election in Australian history running on the mantra 'Labor puts people first.'

Sound familiar?

Like Calwell, Bill Shorten plans to subsidise uncompetitive industries and run a budget deficit to lavish more funds on health and education.

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But while Labor's policies are still rooted in the 1960's, what has changed is the nature of the workforce Bill Shorten claims to represent.

In Calwell 's days, putting people first meant standing strong for the 55 per cent of workers who belonged to a trade union.

But with union membership dwindling to just 17 per cent of today's workforce, Labor's rehashed election slogan raises an important question. As the political leader of a union movement now outnumbered by small business owners, who exactly does Bill Shorten plan on putting first?

If recent history is any reliable guide, it may not even be the members.

Labor's largest union affiliate, the SDA or 'shoppies' has come under recent fire for striking pay deals with Coles and McDonalds which slashed penalty rates for hundreds of thousands of workers of low-paid workers.

One of these agreements left an 18-year-old McDonalds casual $2500 worse off a year compared to the industry award.

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Coles and McDonalds returned the favour by helping the Shoppies recruit for its 250,000 strong membership and paying exorbitant sums for 'training courses.' This allows the shoppies to fork out millions for Labor campaigns and boost its sway over Labor pre-selections and internal affairs. None of this is by chance: twelve members of Labor's Federal caucus have ties with the shoppies.

Bill Shorten himself is no stranger to enterprise agreements where fleecing workers is the price of political gain. As AWU Secretary, Bill Shorten negotiated a pay deal which cut the pay of casual cleaners from $28-$29 an hour to a meagre $18. Shorten's quid pro quo was an arrangement that automatically signed cleaners up to the AWU, resulting in around 90 per cent of the businesses duped cleaners signing on as members.

Labor remains institutionally wedded to an organisation that has done more to cut weekend pay than any member of the Coalition. The irony for members must be biting.

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About the Author

John Slater is the Executive Director of the H R Nicholls Society.

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