WorkPartners

Make $2 million more over 5 years for every 1000 new members

Every 1000 new members you sign up can make you an extra $2 million over 5 years, after the costs of recruitment.

That’s a lot of extra money available for campaigns, to provide services for your members and to build the strength of your union.

To strengthen your union’s financial base call Stuart McGill now on 0412 141 753.

Earlier this year I received an email from an ex-WorkPartners employee describing their experiences in 2008 working for the company, which specialises in recruiting workers to trade unions.

Or did.

Stumbling around the NUW site recently, I came across a media release [DOC] noting that regarding WorkPartners it “will be pursuing all avenues to secure workers’ entitlements, and where possible pursue further employment options. Workers with WorkPartners across several states were stood down. The company has now been put into liquidation.”

I didn’t notice it at the time, but WorkPartners apparently went bankrupt late last month:

Union recruiting company put into liquidation
Ewin Hannan
The Australian
October 27, 2011

A PRIVATE company paid by unions to recruit members has been placed in liquidation owing up to $4 million, including at least $750,000 to 700 current and former employees.

Unions National Pty Ltd, trading as Work Partners, was wound up on Tuesday night after acknowledging it was “or may be” insolvent and could not pay its debts when they fell due…

Union recruitment firm collapses into liquidation
Patrick Stafford
SmartCompany
October 27, 2011

A firm designed to recruit members for unions has been placed in liquidation with more than $4 million in debt, the second collapse of its kind within just one week, suggesting some sectors of the recruitment market are struggling to keep up.

The liquidation of Unions National, which traded as Work Partners, comes after family-owned business Extrastaff Recruitment was placed into administration last week…

In any case, given the collapse, I thought now would be a good time to publish the story I was sent earlier in the year, along with a little more infos I gathered at the time regarding the company.

WorkPartners is/was the brainchild of Stuart McGill (a former staffer for Senator Doug Cameron). In an online presentation, McGill presents a convincing case for adopting a rational, which is to say business-oriented approach to selling a product–union membership–to a market–industrial workers. McGill argues that the key to increasing consumption (and hence income) is informing the consumer of the wide range of financial benefits available to union members. He further notes that:

Interestingly when I talk to people who are twenty-something, a lot of them have never heard, really, seriously, never heard of unions, let alone have any sense of what they do… then among some of my progressive and Left friends, particularly some of my Green friends, they say it’s a has-been story thank you very much, what can they do for me? In fact, some of the things that I would like to see in the world–they say to me–unions oppose. This is why I think unions are still critically important: pay, protection and influence. They are the best way to get each of those…

On December 13, 2009, McGill joined Brian Henderson, the Secretary of the Victorian Australian Education Union (AEU), in a forum to discuss Union Recruitment or ‘The trials and tribulations of growing union membership in the 21st Century’:

In the last two years, the Australian Education Union in Victoria, as well [as] other unions in several states, have used a new methodology pioneered by Dr [?] Stuart McGill. It has seen a dramatic growth in membership.

The Secretary of the AEU, together with Stuart McGill, will discuss the new approach and its successes, as well as the controversies that surround it.

Can this new method play a major part in making unions even larger social movements than in recent years? What works for 20 somethings? What happens to unions when the baby boom retires? Can workplaces get greener via workplace bargaining? How do we build productivity, make work more interesting, and get better paid?

These and more issues and questions will be discussed. Come and hear the burning debates in modern unionism.

McGill also features in a Sydney Morning Herald article regarding allegations of branch-stacking in Labor branches in the Blue Mountains: Mountain blue over branch stacking, Lisa Carty, March 2, 2008.

Issues concerning and potential problems with union-recruitment-as-profitable-business have been canvassed in a number of articles in recent years. See : Watchdog targets union scouts, Ewin Hannan, The Australian, March 21, 2010 | Australian unions contract out recruitment of members, Terry Cook, wsws.org, March 13, 2010 | Union bounty hunters, Tim Palmer, The 7.30 Report (ABC), March 11, 2010 | Unions employ ultimate in outsourcing, Ewin Hannan, The Australian, March 10, 2010.

While WorkPartners is probably most widely known for its work on behalf of unions, its recruitment model was spawned in relation to fund-raising for business charities, where it was known as ‘Good Cause’, with clients including the NSW Cancer Council, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Save the Children (Look who’s taking a huge slice of your charity, Michael Pelly, The Sydney Morning Herald, December 23, 2004). The article notes that “The not-for-profit sector is huge. The Fundraising Institute of Australia said it was worth between $3 billion and $5 billion each year, comprised 4.7 per cent of GDP and employed 6.8 per cent of all workers”. See also : Fundraisers flood city – Spruikers paid to solicit for charities, Mandi Zonneveldt, Pathways Australia, April 2004.

Through much of 2008, I was employed by WorkPartners, a company run at the time by Stuart MacGill (the managing director), who I understand to be an ALP insider with a background in the marketing industry, and Jurgen van Ark, whose background is in sales and marketing. I should note that I understand that the two are (were) involved in a legal dispute and that Mr van Ark is no longer the CEO. The company’s role is to recruit members to trade unions through a number of different methods, with people trained as salespeople ‘selling’ the product of union membership. I was one of those sales people. WorkPartners would be paid a sum (I’m unaware of the amount but was told by a manager that it was roughly $500 per membership) for each new member that was signed up to the union, and that’s how the company made its money.

MY EMPLOYMENT WITH WORKPARTNERS

On commencement of employment, my job was first to door-knock around suburbs which my employers had determined (possibly by statistics, I’m not sure) to have high populations of workers in industries covered by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU). I door-knocked in Lakemba and Penrith. We were asked to determine whether or not any of the males in the house worked in the manufacturing industry, and if they did, try to sell them union membership by highlighting benefits such as Union Shopper and private health insurance funds. Immediately I was uncomfortable in door-knocking to sell union membership and had made the decision to quit when Mr van Ark offered me the opportunity to travel to Melbourne the week after, all expenses paid for the week, and to put me up in a four-star hotel room in central Melbourne.

The reason for this was that in Melbourne WorkPartners had secured a contract with the Victorian Australian Education Union’s (AEU) TAFE and Adult Education division. This recruitment was done on TAFE sites by approaching teachers in staff rooms at any time throughout their working days.

My job was entirely a sales role and I was employed on a common-law contract with a base hourly rate and a bonus depending on the number of people who I recruited to join the AEU. The target was 10 new members per week, and some weeks I would make up to $1000. Job security at WorkPartners (something that the union movement supposedly values) was best summed up by what Mr van Ark told when hiring me: ‘we hire people as quickly as we fire them’. I saw numerous employees hired and soon after sacked.

As employees of WorkPartners we were given absolutely no training in trade unionism or industrial relations, only salesmanship. This caused predictable problems on TAFE sites (which I will go into in more depth later). We were told that the most important thing of all was that non-unionised workers give us their credit card or bank details and become financial members of the AEU. A then colleague of mine told me the CEO told her that meant “showing extra cleavage if necessary” and I was once taken to a hairdressers during a shift and told that if I didn’t get my hair cut I wouldn’t have a job.

I was also told upon commencing employment (as were other employees) that I was now automatically an AMWU member. I was sceptical of this, given I thought that constitutionally the AMWU could only cover people in certain industries, and that my new ‘industry’ was covered constitutionally by another union. When I called the Victorian Labor Council, sure enough I was informed that the Australian Services Union (ASU) was the applicable union for me. Despite never signing any forms, having any deductions taken out of my salary or receiving any correspondence from the AMWU whatsover, the CEO assured me that I was a fully financial AMWU member throughout my employment.

I resented being lied to about such a fundamental thing.

The problems in outsourcing employment are well-known by the union movement, and generally the movement is one of the few forces in society to challenge this tendency. If work is outsourced, profit is the bottom line, and employment conditions and the quality of work suffer dramatically. Though undoubtedly WorkPartners boosts union membership for the sectors covered by the AEU, AMWU, CPSU and FSU (the unions I know of contractually linked to WorkPartners), the cost is certainly the abandonment of the rights of the people who work for WorkPartners–but outsourcing recruitment in this manner also has potentially grave consequences for the union movement more generally.

THE AEU AND WORKPARTNERS

During the time I was working for WorkPartners, the TAFE and Adult Education division of the Victorian AEU was involved in long-overdue wage negotiations. TAFE teachers were fed up with being the lowest-paid TAFE teachers in Australia, and many expressed to me their frustrations with a union which seemed unwilling to take action and instead spent lots of money on advertising campaigns. We were always instructed to tell teachers that we worked for the AEU and to listen to any industrial issues or workplace concerns they had.

It was hard at times to maintain the charade that we were AEU employees and not salespeople given that we arrived at TAFE sites in suits and often knew less about industrial issues than employees themselves. I remember one day when an employee said to one of my colleagues “so we’re going on strike”. She responded by saying “are we?” before she called the CEO, who then informed her that a full-day strike had been called. Although our employer hadn’t bothered to tell us about the first strike in the industry in 13 years, it was common enough knowledge to be on page two of The Age on the day of my colleague’s embarrassing episode.

Communication between employees of WorkPartners such as myself and the AEU was virtually non-existent. One day I happened to be at a TAFE site where the then Vice-President of the AEU Gillian Robertson was addressing a lunchtime meeting. We had a chat and she gave me around 100 newly printed leaflets advertising the price of union membership for casual teachers as $10 a month. Once I gave the leaflet to the CEO, he said words to the effect of “shred the rest, throw them in the bin. We don’t get paid as much for people signed up on that rate, make sure you get them to pay the higher rate”. I was told not to tell the union that we were not handing out the leaflets and signing TAFE teachers up to pay more money than they were required to. I ignored the request to defraud union members, but others I worked with did not, as we were not paid as much if we did not follow the CEO’s instructions.

The concept of union right-of-entry laws were entirely foreign to most of the people I worked with, unsurprising given most were teenagers with low levels of education and we’d been given no training in the relevant laws. This obviously did not stop us from getting into situations where we were instructed to break the law by our employers, without most employees even realising it. This left us liable for tens of thousands of dollars in fines for both us and the AEU.

The same infuriated human resources manager at Holmesglen TAFE in Chadstone personally asked me to leave on two separate occasions. On the first occasion he warned me in no uncertain terms that if I returned I would be trespassing, but despite me raising these concerns with the CEO, he insisted I return. Less than one week later I was asked once again to attempt to recruit new AEU members at a Holmesglen TAFE site, this time in Moorabbin, where predictably I was once again ejected, this time by the HR manager’s slightly less irate deputy.

HR managers were not the only people annoyed by WorkPartners’ complete disregard for ROE laws. At an Adult Migrant Education Service site in Noble Park near Dandenong, the acting manager, an AEU member, was extremely upset that we had arrived unannounced (of course on the instruction of management) and insisted that had we given her the courtesy of a phone call that she would have facilitated a recruitment meeting. At the East Gippsland Institute of TAFE’s campus at Bairnsdale, we were asked to leave by the AEU representative! Not only were we asked to invade peoples’ workspace unannounced during meal times to “sell” them union membership, but the CEO also encouraged us to acquire lists of employees’ phone numbers at the various TAFE, AMES and disability education sites around Victoria, and to repetitively phone known non-members.

The employees who followed instructions must have really pissed people off.

Many employees of WorkPartners had no concept of what a trade union even was before commencing employment, they just saw their job as the sale of a product. I was told by a manager that on various occasions the AEU had been phoned by TAFE teachers complaining of aggressive sales tactics and that WorkPartners’ employees would simply not take no for an answer. TAFE teachers also complained to me about the tenacity of WorkPartners recruitment officers.

The huge pressure on us as employees to sign up new members also caused some employees to lie to TAFE teachers about the benefits of AEU membership as well as the progress of industrial negotiations. I witnessed one employee promise teachers that they would get “a massive pay rise within two months of joining the AEU”, which of course had absolutely no grounding in fact whatsoever. Employees were encouraged to compete with each other, which lead to a very public and nearly physical confrontation witnessed by TAFE students and teachers at the Bendigo Regional Institute of TAFE’s Bendigo campus.

Breaches of right of entry law, misinformation and unprofessional conduct are the common and unfortunately predictable side-effect to outsourcing union recruitment that the AEU’s leadership should have seen a mile away.

WORKPARTNERS AND OTHER UNIONS

Other than the AEU, the only other union I had occasion to work on behalf of while working at WorkPartners, was briefly with the AMWU in NSW, which I detailed earlier.

Colleagues of mine occasionally worked for days at a time door-knocking in the remote South Australian town of Roxby Downs on behalf of the AMWU. A then-colleague and friend of mine told me that one night she had gone to bed while another female colleague had decided to go to the pub in order to gain AMWU members. She returned late that night intoxicated with two men into the room of my sleeping colleague and began to perform sexual acts. My friend told me of her deep discomfort at the situation, and also told WorkPartners’ administration and HR manager, who then informed the CEO.

The following Monday morning my friend did not arrive at work. When I asked the CEO where she was, he said we may not be seeing her again. She did come to work two days later and told me that she’d nearly lost her job because of complaints about other people’s “sales methods”. In reality, she was complaining about being put in an extremely vulnerable position. While focussing on “sales methods” that work, I suspect Mr van Ark neglected to see that there could perhaps be negative flow-on effects from people claiming to be union reps getting pissed at pubs while attempting to recruit members, and taking multiple partners back to motel rooms in a small community like Roxby Downs.

CONCLUSIONS

The problem that WorkPartners claims to address are real: declining union membership rates in Australia. The reasons are complex, relating to changes in the industries, perceived weakness in trade unions as organisations, media campaigns and legislative changes making it harder for unions to defend workers. Another key reason is that the core work of government and not-for-profit organisations has been outsourced unlike any other period in history since the 1980s. This denies people who work for corporations performing work for government and non-government organisations the security of employment conditions which are under greater scrutiny by organisations that do not operate for profit, but for public service. Outsourcing is part of the problem, not part of the solution. The WorkPartners example highlights that in the case of the union movement with outsourcing comes sloppiness and corruption.

Surely the union movement has a responsibility as defenders of workers’ rights to defend the working people who are paid through its coffers, directly or indirectly. If the broader public was aware of the existence of WorkPartners, the revolving door individual contract employment policy, the complete lack of training and blatant disregard for industrial law, I’m sure the union movement’s reputation would be damaged.

I have been a proud union member since I got my first job at a supermarket when I was 16. At jobs I’ve had since working at WorkPartners, I’ve remained a union member, but I feel somewhat disillusioned after my experience working there. I thought that the union movement might have been one arena where outsourcing and salesmanship had not taken hold.

Now even union membership is a commodity.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2020 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
This entry was posted in State / Politics, That's Capitalism! and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to WorkPartners

  1. Paul Justo says:

    Nice post. What a crock of shit the unions have become. I have recruited across my state within the company I work for and outside that within the industry in general for fuck all except out of political conviction. For all its ills the unions are one of the most important mass organisations of the working class. These bean counting fuckwits working for Doug Cameron are the ‘labour aristocracy’ as VI Lenin aptly described them.

    Anyway what else can we expect from an Orange Scotsman except this shite, it’s no coincidence that the ‘Rights at Work’ campaign colour was orange.

  2. @ndy says:

    Oh yeah…

    Work Partners works with the AEU to engage teams of membership recruitment consultants to visit TAFEs, schools and early childhood centres to engage teachers in conversation about the numerous benefits of joining the union.

    Both the union and Work Partners are involved in training and employing the consultants, and deciding when and where they go.

    The presence of the membership consultants increases discussion of unions and the visibility of the union.

    Current members are pleased to see the union at work building membership in a way that will increase the influence and participation of employees in the workplace.

    This work has resulted in a massive increase in people joining the union, especially amongst sessional teachers who have previously been very difficult to reach.

    Small teams visit by arrangement

    Arrangements are made with each educational institution to visit and speak with teachers.

    Team members wear appropriate dress and are properly authorised by the union.

    They do not give industrial advice, but talk with teachers about the union and the benefits of joining.

    More than 7,000 new members in 24 months

    In partnership with Work Partners, the AEU recruited more than 7,000 new members over a period of 24 months.

    As a result, its membership is at its highest level ever.

    “To whom it may concern,

    Work Partners has, over the last 24 months, recruited approximately 7,000 new union members for the AEU Victoria, in both the schools and TAFE sectors.

    Their recruitment has reached some areas where we have so far not been able to push density to desirable levels.

    The level of retention of members appears to be similar to recruitment by normal in-house means.

    The systems we have created for handling this major recruitment drive are functioning smoothly.

    As a result of both our in-house and external recruitment, we now have the highest level of membership the union has ever had.

    I highly recommend Work Partners as a further means of increasing union membership and therefore density. All the research shows that the higher the union density the better the outcome when it comes to bargaining.”

    Regards,
    BRIAN HENDERSON
    Branch Secretary
    Australian Education Union
    Phone (03) 9417 2822

  3. Bozo says:

    And do you know which union was left holding the bag when WP went belly up, having approved their use just weeks before?

  4. Mark.S says:

    I had worked for this company between 2009 and 2011. Everything that has been said not just on this article but on all the others is true. The way Stuart McGill handled his staff was crap…

    They currently owe me around $2500 in unpaid wages and bonuses not to mention the unpaid superannuation & underpay.

    Would love to see Stuart McGill or Sue Hoiles to give either one a piece of my mind…

  5. @ndy says:

    http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2012/s3410805.htm

    Surely the unions that employed WP have some kinda obligation to ensure WP employees are adequately compensated? I’d be pretty pissed if I was a member of the AEU or one of the other unions and knew that my fees were paying for this kind of ‘service’…

  6. Pingback: WTF? HACSU, EBAs, and the poor health of unions in Australia | slackbastard

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