Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has backed the retail union he once represented in a stoush involving a rival wages suit against McDonald’s, as government lawyers prepared to intervene in the Federal Court action on Monday.
The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), which Burke worked for as a union organiser between 1997 and 2003, is facing off against Shine Lawyers in competing suits lodged against the fast food giant involving allegations of unpaid wages for shift breaks to workers across Australia.
In a rare intervention, lawyers for the Commonwealth will file submissions in the Federal Court on Monday supporting the SDA’s application over Shine’s class action case as the parties prepare to return to court on Thursday to argue which suit should proceed.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke says the government will intervene to back the “Shoppies” union’s wages case over a rival suit by Shine Lawyers.Credit:Michele Mossop
Burke said the government had decided to back the SDA because it wanted any compensation awarded by the court to go back to workers, claiming that Shine would clip as much as 25 per cent of the proceeds in fees if its case was successful.
The SDA is seeking up to $250 million compensation on behalf of more than 250,000 current and former McDonald’s workers, alleging the company and its franchisees denied them paid breaks in breach of an enterprise agreement.
“The problem is this, if the litigation law firm claim takes over, then all the costs that law firm claims and the percentages that they claim come straight off the balance of what the workers would otherwise get. And so, I’ve taken the view, and the government’s taken the view, that we need to intervene in this case,” Burke told Sky News on Sunday.
Burke accused Shine Lawyers of making the same claim as the SDA, but for a lower amount and covering fewer workers, describing the union’s case as the “original claim”, prompting Shine Lawyers to accuse him of making false assertions.
“To have a situation now where something in the order of 25 per cent of an underpayment claim might not get to the workers, that’s something the government has an interest in,” Burke said.
“So, we’ll be turning up to court and making the legal case as to why the case from the union – where the workers would get 100 per cent of the funds – is the one that should be allowed to proceed.”
Shine Lawyers, which is working with SDA’s rival, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, said it was not appropriate to comment while the matter before the court, but said the firm had commenced its class action process before the SDA had launched its suit.
“However, we note the minister, who was an SDA organiser for six years, has made a number of incorrect factual and legal assertions about the class action,” Shine Lawyers Joint Head of Class Actions Vicky Antzoulatos said.
“Shine Lawyers commenced the class action to obtain justice for affected McDonald’s workers in circumstances where no other party was acting for McDonald’s workers.”
Gerard Dwyer, national secretary of the SDA, welcomed Burke’s intervention, alleging that workers would lose millions in compensation if Shine’s case proceeded and they won.
“The SDA wants to deliver hundreds of thousands of workers 100 per cent of their compensation (if the court orders compensation), without paying millions to class-action litigation funding company
profits and lawyers,” Dwyer said.
McDonald’s declined to comment on the case.
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