Anyone worried by Workplace Minister Tony Abbott’s scare campaign over union bargaining fees can rest assured: fees-for-service – like all conditions in enterprise agreements – are approved by a democratic choice of employees in the workplace and are subject to important legal safeguards says ACTU Secretary Greg Combet.

Employees and employers have nothing to fear from the Federal Court’s recent Full Bench ruling (Friday June 21) in the Electrolux case on bargaining fees.

The Court simply decided that unions and their members can pursue enterprise agreements which may include provisions such as a fee for the bargaining service that the union provides.

Abbott should accept the umpire’s decision and let Australian employees and employers decide for themselves what is best for their workplaces.

Both union members and non-members in a workplace have a say in a democratic vote on enterprise agreements, including any containing fee-for-service clauses. The agreements must also be approved by employers and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, which ensures compliance with freedom of association laws.

Unions have a legal obligation to negotiate enterprise agreements which apply to all employees in a workplace – union members and non-members alike. Unions support this approach because it prevents discrimination.

But where the benefits of union negotiated agreements apply to all employees, and there is a significant cost to unions in the bargaining process, surely it is fair enough to ask the non-unionists for a fee for the service provided. After all, the union members pay for the service through their membership fees.

Unions accept that their principal responsibility is to attract and recruit employees as members. The bargaining fee is not a substitute for union organisation – it is not unionism by the ‘back door’.

But unions do deliver very substantial benefits for non-members covered by union negotiated agreements, and it is only fair that non-unionists who are prepared to accept better pay, job security, health and safety and other benefits from bargaining agreements may be asked to contribute, like their other workmates, to the cost of negotiating the agreement.

Union pay rises last year averaged 4.6% compared to only 2.2% for the Howard Government’s individual contracts (AWAs), according to the latest independent figures from the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training.

Union members are far more likely than non-members to be entitled to annual leave (89% vs 72%), sick leave (90% vs 72%), and long service leave (85% vs 62%), according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The benefits of union-negotiated agreements are reflected in the ABS data showing that union members on average earn $99 a week, or 15%, more than non-members.

The ACTU believes fair-minded Australians will agree that a fee for a demonstrable and substantial service provided by unions is a democratic way of sharing the costs between all those receiving the benefit. Naturally, the fee must be commensurate with the service provided.

Mr Abbott’s claims about union bargaining fees are straight out of the Peter Reith school of political integrity.