Solidarity threat: Lawyer-led splinter groups strike trouble in challenge to top unions

A group that portrays itself as a cheaper, independent alternative to unions will be forced to restructure if its officials are to be protected from the government. Then there are the lawsuits.

Aug 04, 2021, updated Aug 04, 2021
Jack McGuire (left) and the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland have been taken to court. (Facebook)

Jack McGuire (left) and the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland have been taken to court. (Facebook)

Nurses, teachers and, more recently, police officers have been approached to join breakaway groups that promise to take the fight to the Palaszczuk government.

Established by an organisation known as Red Union, and with ties to lawyers, the new groups are technically not unions and exist on the fringes of a labour movement that is trying to push them further out.

Last week, the most high-profile of these groups, the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland, was dealt a blow in the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.

NPAQ has been trying to take on the Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union, which has 65,000 members and is the largest industrial organisation in the state.

However, the commission found a nurse and NPAQ office-bearer had no protection when Queensland Health sought to reprimand her for making comments about the health system to the Sunday Mail without the proper authority.

The nurse had claimed her rights, including industrial rights, had been violated, but the QIRC found the “NPAQ’s legal personality and corporate status are inconsistent with that of a typical ‘trade union’ and its history is not in any sense typical of a ‘trade union’.”

For that reason, the QIRC found, the nurse and NPAQ advocate “did not have the claimed workplace rights or protections” so could not successfully argue they had been breached.

NPAQ state secretary Aenghas Hopkinson-Pearson told InQueensland they would likely appeal. Nonetheless, she said Queensland Health had dropped the show cause notice against the nurse and the QIRC had provided “a blueprint for the structure that the commission believes we should take”.

“Those suggested changes are currently being settled by our barristers and will be put to members before the end of the month,” Hopkinson-Pearson said in a statement.

It is unclear whether those changes will also apply to the Teachers’ Professional Association of Queensland, which was set up to challenge the Queensland Teachers’ Union.

However, the groups’ lawyers are already busy defending various actions, including a pushback against attempts to represent police officers in Queensland.

The QNMU had already taken District Court action against the NPAQ and its previous spokesman, former law student and Liberal National Party member Jack McGuire. It accused McGuire of defamation, over comments he made in the media regarding a separate hospital dispute.

Under Queensland law, companies cannot sue for defamation but some organisations can, including unions, along with any individuals involved.

More recently, McGuire’s efforts to set up a rival to the Queensland Police Union, believed to be tentatively known as the Police Professional Association of Queensland, have also landed the newcomers in court.

According to documents filed in the Federal Court, McGuire met with a country sergeant and then sent an email that was forwarded to other officers, detailing how the Red Union was “not far off setting up an alternative to the QPU”.

In the email, McGuire referred to two former QPU executives, who might head the new group, and made claims about their previous dealings with current president Ian Leavers, and the union’s activities. That prompted Leavers to sue McGuire for defamation – of himself and the QPU.

McGuire today suggested the QPU case had already been settled and there would be a “full throated defence” of the QNMU action.

Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said the government remained committed to working with registered organisations – which the NPAQ and TPAQ are not.

“These unregistered organisations are not subject to the rigorous and transparent registration and reporting requirements registered union and employer organisations are subject to,” Grace told InQueensland.

Neither the NPAQ or TPAQ are registered with the Fair Work Commission, or the Queensland industrial relations system, and their membership figures are not independently verified.

The groups, which also include the Professional Drivers Association of Australia, provide advocacy largely through News Corp channels and offer legal support to members in dispute with the government.

Queensland Council of Unions general secretary Michael Clifford used the QIRC ruling to emphasise the “important differences between real unions and these fake unions”.

“Their agenda is to bust unions and limit their power to fight for members’ pay and conditions,” Clifford said.

“They seek to undermine collectivism, and what they do is the very opposite of unionism. Real unions focus on organising and fighting for members and improving their communities where they live and work.”

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