Demise of unions fails to stymie workplace conflict

Demise of unions fails to stymie workplace conflict
By Guest writer on 28 October 2014 By Julian Teicher and Bernadine Van Gramberg

Australia used to be criticised for its high levels of industrial action, most notably strikes and picketing, and much of this was blamed on ‘militant unionism’. Over the past two decades there has been a profound transformation in the reported figures on industrial conflict.

There are now relatively few strikes and for the most part they are concentrated around the re-negotiation of enterprise agreements. Associated with this has been a decline in union membership. From this type of observation we can perhaps conclude that much industrial conflict was due to the influence of unions and that changing social attitudes to union membership and the implementation of legislation more closely regulating the conduct of industrial action and penalising unlawful industrial action have wrought a transformation in Australian workplaces.

Another explanation for the apparent reduction in conflict is that the suppression of organised forms of conflict such as strikes and lockouts results in alternative expressions of conflict, although it would be simplistic to suggest there is a direct relationship between the two.

Individual complaints rising

It remains however, that workers who are denied the opportunity to voice their grievances will take action in other ways and there is evidence that individualised expressions of workplace conflict are rising. One source of evidence is the increasing number of complaints concerning employment discrimination that have been lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

In its 2012/2013 annual report the AHRC noted that employment complaints made up the bulk of cases lodged under the Sex Discrimination Act 1994 and the Age Discrimination Act 2004, accounting for 86% and 57.5% of all complaints.

Employment discrimination complaints also amounted to more than one third of complaints lodged under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and a quarter of all complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Notably, the number of complaints lodged on the basis of discrimination at work has been rising steadily over the past 20 years.

Similarly claims of unfair dismissal have risen sharply and almost continuously since 2006 when 5173 unfair dismissal cases were heard by the tribunal, rising to 14,818 in 2013 according to the Fair Work Commission annual report for 2012/2013.

Covert action

These reports may be part of a larger problem, one which has been exacerbated by the decline of trade unions in Australia and elsewhere but at least they are quantifiable. What is not so easy to see or measure is the extent to which employees take covert action (absenteeism, withdrawal of discretionary work effort, and even sabotage).

While we can adduce evidence of the various forms of covert conflict, almost by definition its precise extent cannot be quantified. Nor can this problem be addressed, for example, by resorting to employee culture-climate surveys and other devices designed to address the extent of employee concerns. These devices assume disgruntled employees will give voice to their concerns but this is unlikely to be the case, particularly where experience has led employees to conclude their concerns will not be taken seriously or, worse, that they will be treated less favourably as a result of raising their concerns.

In our research, which includes interviews with a range of practitioners, there is support for the proposition that the presence of unions in a workplace has often operated as a mechanism for variously filtering, expressing and resolving conflicts.

Role of unions

In those workplaces with an active union some issues would never reach management and others would be reviewed and presented to management in a form more amenable of resolution. Indeed, in the contemporary workplace, issues may fail to be articulated or it may take considerable effort by management to uncover the issue or issues in dispute. For example, an issue of unfair allocation of overtime may have its roots in poor supervision.

That individual conflict remains an issue in Australian workplaces is also evident from our survey of 1400 managers who were responsible for human resource management issues in their organisation. We found the most senior manager responsible for HR issues spent four hours per week engaged in conflict resolution in firms with less than 20 employees, rising to 14 hours per week in organisations with more than 500 employees.

Also revealing were the causes of individual disputes. No matter the size of the organisation, discipline and personality conflicts were the two most commonly reported conflicts followed by disagreement over employment conditions. Supervisor and line manager decisions were also an important source of conflict for all sizes of organisation but particularly those with less than 20 employees.

'High conflict' employees

In any discussion of workplace conflict it is tempting to blame issues on difficult or ‘high conflict’ employees. Such people typically engage in uncivil and aggressive behaviours which fall short of definitions of bullying under the relevant occupational health and safety legislation. They also demonstrate a lack of self-awareness or remorse.

Certainly, these high conflict behaviours may be an element in routine workplace conflict. They are important because of their implications for other employees and because such situations are not particularly amenable to the conventional tools of workplace dispute resolution. But we would argue these form the minority of cases.

What appears certain is that while unions may have disappeared from many of our workplaces, conflict has not. In the absence of suitable employee advocates, workers draw on whatever resources they have at hand to deal with their conflicts.

In many cases this results in workers complaining to state and federal tribunals. In other cases, less visible, but more unproductive and insidious, responses to perceived unfairness at work will be inflicted on organisations.

Professor Julian Teicher is director of research, Department of Management,
Faculty of Business and Economics, Monash University.

Bernadine Van Gramberg is dean of Swimburne Business School at Swinburne University of Technology.



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