Shorten left stew­ing in his own juices

AWU sweet­heart deal does the dirty on hun­dreds of mush­room pick­ers

Townsville Bulletin - - OPINION - Joe Hilde­brand joe.hilde­

IN the end it was the mush­room pick­ers that got me.

Work is good. It can be a cure for de­pres­sion, a dis­trac­tion from grief, a bind­ing force for friend­ship and a great way to meet women.

It is also a source of self- worth. A para­medic saves lives, a teacher saves the fu­ture, a car­pen­ter builds our homes.

But in the end it was the mush­room pick­ers that got me.

It strikes me that un­less you are a par­tic­u­larly mil­i­tant veg­e­tar­ian, there is lit­tle ful­fil­ment to be gained by pick­ing large ed­i­ble fungi out of the ground.

As noble a vo­ca­tion as it may be, I sus­pect most mush­room pick­ers aren’t in it for the glory. They just want their money.

And that is what I found most trou­bling about Bill Shorten’s ap­pear­ance at the union royal com­mis­sion.

As head of the Aus­tralian Work­ers’ Union Shorten helped de­liver the vi­tal East­Link road pro­ject ahead of sched­ule with­out leav­ing work­ers worse off. That is gen­uinely to his great credit.

But there was also a sep­a­rate AWU deal – and I quote Fair­fax so as to avoid the usual con­spir­acy claims – “that low­ered wages for hun­dreds of mush­room pick­ers in re­turn for un­usual pay­ments to the union”.

And in the end it was the mush- room pick­ers that got me.

There is a golden rule in pol­i­tics that you never launch an in­quiry un­less you know what the out­come is go­ing to be, and never has it been ex­e­cuted so pre­cisely as when the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment set up this one.

But that doesn’t make it any less dam­ag­ing to the union move­ment, nor any less po­tent a weapon for a gov­ern­ment or busi­ness eye­ing off pay rates that Aus­tralian work­ers cur­rently take for granted.

The mes­sage for unions is clear: Adapt or die.

The sweet­heart deals of the AWU only re­in­force the per­cep­tion that union lead­ers are in it for them­selves, not their mem­bers. Yet the of­ten ag­gres­sive tac­tics of the AWU’s arch­neme­sis the CFMEU are equally de­struc­tive. While they may fight for their mem­bers – of­ten quite lit­er­ally it seems – the cul­ture of in­tim­i­da­tion only fu­els the push for un­skilled work­ers or cheap for­eign labour. Both can have deadly con­se­quences.

And so for the union move­ment to sur­vive it must void its bow­els of the sell­outs, the fac­tional war­riors and the thugs.

The na­ture of work is chang­ing. Peo­ple move jobs more fre­quently and the jobs them­selves are mov­ing too – mostly off­shore.

The real chal­lenge for union lead- ers is there­fore to make Aus­tralian work­ers more com­pet­i­tive with­out sac­ri­fic­ing their pay pack­ets.

That means fo­cus­ing on take home pay and not silly hotch­potch en­ti­tle­ments such as the in­fa­mous “shiny tin al­lowance” at SPC or the so- called “dirt al­lowance” at some NSW power com­pa­nies.

It may also mean build­ing penalty rates into base rates on time- sen­si­tive projects or in in­dus­tries like hos­pi­tal­ity where night and week­end work is the norm.

And it means work­ing with em­ploy­ers to in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity and ef­fi­ciency – of­ten just by let­ting them know what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing on the work­place floor.

A mate of mine was once stag­gered by how long it took to process doc­u­ments in his depart­ment.

He soon dis­cov­ered that peo­ple were re­typ­ing all the in­for­ma­tion from one form to another be­cause no one had told them there was such a thing as copy and paste.

But noth­ing can ex­cuse screw­ing work­ers over in the process. The key is that take home pay must be re­tained while mak­ing work bet­ter, sim­pler and eas­ier.

It can be done and it has been done. At its best, the AWU did it.

They just didn’t do it for the mush­room pick­ers. And in the end it’s the mush­room pick­ers that re­ally get me.

The mes­sage for unions is clear: Adapt or die

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