In introducing the amendments, Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said the bill would clarify the ability of such groups to represent and protect workers, hand new powers to bar incorporated organisations from seeking such a status on request to the QIRC, create civil penalties for misrepresentation, and allow the winding up of any associations that were in breach.
While welcomed by the broader Labor-aligned union movement, others are saying the move goes too far, or comes too early.
Retail and Fast Food Workers Union secretary Josh Cullinan, who made a submission and appeared before the parliamentary committee considering the bill this week, said the power to effectively ban a worker from having representation of their choice was a “bizarre and outrageous intrusion” that was “radically anti-union [and] anti-worker”.
Cullinan said the decision in the Gilbert case “makes [it] plain [that] changes are not required”, with the fix instead a tweak of definitions in the Queensland law and the banning of associations being used “as cover” for a for-profit entity.
“However, the Queensland Labor approach is anathema to a modern democracy or a genuine labour government,” he said.
“Fortunately, retail and fast food workers in Queensland do not need to rely on that [the state Industrial Relations Act] as a source for rights and protections.”
A newcomer to the space, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union formed in 2016 after a nationwide wages scandal centred on workplace agreements between the conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association with major employers, including Coles, Woolworths and McDonald’s.
The RUSH-linked associations, and the RAFFWU, are subject to different regulations to those of registered unions. But unlike the RAFFWU, which is also incorporated interstate, RUSH-linked groups largely represent workers in state public sector roles such as nurses, teachers and police officers.
RUSH managing director Jack McGuire told the committee the government move was premature given the Gilbert appeal.
“[This bill] rips away protections previously given to industrial associations and leaves workers stranded,” he said. “We have almost 1000 matters listed before the QIRC right now. As we speak, we can, and we do, represent people.”
After suggesting he and another director, NPAQ founder and former LNP industrial relations committee chair Graeme Haycroft, also held current executive positions on one RUSH-adjacent association, McGuire then took a further question on notice about which others he was involved in.
McGuire denied such an arrangement meant the groups, which boast lower fees than registered unions, were not independent.
He explained that RUSH was a private company, of which he, Haycroft and another were sole shareholders, who were paid by the associations for industrial and administrative support to “lower the barrier to entry”.
A pay-for-win type charge of up to 30 per cent is also requested of newly signed-up members with “pre-existing” issues who are successful with a claim. McGuire said this was then returned to the “litigation war chest”.
This type of approach appears to have even drawn a submission to the committee by QIRC president Justice Peter Davis, who called for a “broader approach” to stop the appearance of industrial advocates beyond those working for unions and employer groups.
Questioned later in the hearing by deputy LNP leader Jarrod Bleijie about allowing NPAC to formally compete against the QNMU as a registered organisation, Queensland Council of Unions assistant general secretary Jacqueline King said Bleijie was free to recommend a return to the “heydays” of strikes and demarcation disputes despised by employers.
University of Queensland law professor Graeme Orr said while Australia’s industrial landscape offered little choice within sectors because employers disliked dealing with multiple unions, a system that stopped groups like the RAFFWU emerging would be “problematic”.
“I think the bill is addressing a potentially genuine problem,” he said. “[But] an unincorporated association flies below the law.”
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