AWU sued over membership numbers

The Australian Workers' Union could be hit with court-ordered penalties for allegedly inflating its membership numbers by failing to remove those who had not paid their fees.

On Thursday, the federal government's Registered Organisations Commission hit the AWU with its lawsuit in the Federal Court after an investigation from February to August 2021 which uncovered 27,000 alleged contraventions.

"The Commissioner will assert that the failure by the AWU to keep adequate membership records may have prejudiced, disenfranchised or disadvantaged genuine members, and has resulted in the size of the organisation's membership being overstated," the ROC said in a statement.

"Given the systemic and serious nature of the contraventions, it is in the public interest that these contraventions are dealt with by the Federal Court of Australia."

The lawsuit will contend that the union failed to keep an accurate register including the number of members it had, details such as names and addresses, and whether or not they had paid their fees.

Membership for state branches was also higher than it should have been because individuals who had not paid their union fees were not purged from the register, the commission said.

"As a democratic, member-led organisation it is fundamental for each registered organisation to have appropriate systems, policies and processes to ensure that it accurately and consistently maintains its registers. The full extent of the AWU's non-compliance remains unknown," the commission said.

"The proper maintenance and keeping of the membership register is a fundamental requirement of a registered organisation's operations and is important for the democratic functioning and accountability of the organisation."

At the Queensland branch, almost 14,000 members were claimed to have been listed who had failed to pay their dues for over 24 months.

The ROC is seeking declarations that the union broke the law and penalties which, if ordered, would be paid to the Commonwealth.

From December 31, 2009 to December 31, 2014, the AWU's national office falsely claimed in its yearly reports that its membership was the same on June 30 and December 31 despite numbers fluctuating during that time, the commission claimed.

The union's national office allegedly did not keep an independent record of membership numbers but rather relied on information collected from individual branches.

"Despite demand by the Commissioner, the AWU has been unable to produce or identify an accurate or comprehensive record of the state of its register of members as at 31 December for each year from 2009 to 2017," the ROC said.

About 7000 members are alleged to have had incomplete details in the union's Queensland, South Australian and Greater NSW branches.

In August 2020, the Federal Court ordered the AWU to pay over $148,000 in penalties for boosting member numbers at its Victoria branch by falsely adding hundreds of individuals without their knowledge and failing to remove more than 1000 members who had not paid their fees.

An AWU spokesperson told AAP the union would admit to the contraventions and had since improved its record-keeping processes.

"The union for some time acknowledged errors in its historic record keeping. We regret these breaches and will be promptly admitting contraventions in the court," they said.

"Several years ago the AWU engaged independent external auditors to review its membership systems and automated much of its database. The union is now confident in its systems and reporting."