Collective bargaining a ‘mirage’ without industrial umpire: unions

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Collective bargaining a ‘mirage’ without industrial umpire: unions

The ACTU is slowly coming to the (obvious) conclusion that without arbitration powers for the AIRC, its long-desired collective bargaining rights under Labor’s new IR system are a mirage.

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The ACTU is slowly coming to the (obvious) conclusion that without arbitration powers for the AIRC, its long-desired collective bargaining rights under Labor’s new IR system are a mirage.

In a column in The Australian this week, ACTU president Sharan Burrow optimistically claims that ‘collective bargaining as the centrepiece of a new IR system will turn WorkChoices on its head’.

Criticism from union circles points to the view that collective bargaining without an arbitration system is just another form of ‘pleading’ - unions can ask for whatever they want but, if the employer says no, they cannot force the point.

If the employer does not want a union collective agreement, a non-union one can be offered; or the parties can go back to the award with sweeteners in the flexibility clause. Common law contracts would be too unwieldy for big workplaces.

‘Gaps’ in the plan

In her column, Burrow admits ‘there are still gaps in Labor’s plan’ and lists the three main concerns unions have about the Fair Work Australia system due to begin on 1 January 2010:

  • the scope of bargaining and the challenge of a modern workforce

  • collective bargaining rights for working Australians that may fail if the independent umpire does not have the power to settle disputes, particularly for the low-paid

  • unfair-dismissal protection for those workers in enterprises where there are fewer than 15 colleagues.

So the ‘gaps’ include the fact that unions have no power to force employers to collectively bargain (except protected industrial action during which their members lose wages), the AIRC can’t intervene to settle disputes (so employers can simply wait the unions out), and it is now seemingly easy for small employers to dismiss workers.

‘Umpire essential’

Burrow, having said the collective barging would ‘turn WorkChoices on its head’, has had to admit ‘a strong and independent umpire is essential for collective bargaining to work’.

‘Unless the new industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia, has enough power to settle disputes, employers will be able to frustrate negotiations and prevent workers achieving a result,’ she says.

‘Just ask workers in Telstra or Cochlear or other workplaces where the employers just say no.’

‘Extra power important’

Burrow says extra power for the umpire to settle disputes will be particularly important to help workers in low-paid industries, including many women, who have previously been disadvantaged by their limited access to multi-employer collective bargaining.

She also says that if the proposed bargaining stream for low-paid workers is to be successful, the independent umpire must be able to settle those final matters in dispute when parties become entrenched.

Labor won’t allow it

However, it appears that Labor has no intention of allowing this to happen, with IR Minister Julia Gillard saying at the weekend ‘we don’t want to have industrial action across a broad range of employers’.

Burrow says the restrictions proposed on the scope of what employees can bargain collectively with their employer are ‘unnecessary, unfair and outmoded’.

‘Why should there be any limit on what workers and their employers can agree to?’ she asks. ‘Business representatives are selling short the workplaces of the future if bargaining cannot accommodate workforce planning, skills of the future or numbers of apprentices.'

‘Legitimate interests are many’

‘Employees have a legitimate interest in a wide range of issues, including how to save energy, reduce waste and support climate-change solutions in their workplace.’

Burrow is also concerned that the restrictions on industrial action are almost as tough as under WorkChoices.

‘Collective bargaining could also be adversely affected by Labor's proposals on so-called unprotected industrial action,’ she says.

‘There will be times - such as when factory closures or redundancies are announced - when workers will want to stop work to consider the implications.'

‘Unreasonably harsh’ strike provision

‘Deducting four hours' pay is unreasonably harsh and could lead to greater work disruptions as there will be no incentive for workers to return to work for half a day.’

Burrow seems to be saying that the Fair Work Australia system offers virtually nothing for the union movement, but has stopped short on attacking Labor over it. Sectors in the union movement may be contemplating how long can the more radical sections of the trade union movement contain themselves.

Fair dismissal code

The ACTU has also been restrained on Labor’s new Fair Dismissal Code for fair dismissals by small employers. Burrow put out a statement ‘welcoming’ the statement by IR Minister Julia Gillard in which Gillard detailed how easy it would be for small businesses to dismiss workers.

‘While Australians will breathe a sigh of relief to get back some security in workplaces with more than 15 employees, workers in smaller businesses must have confidence that the umpire is there for them, too.’ Burrow says.

However, the Government’s statements to date indicate that if the employer plays the game according to the rules, there is no decisive role for the umpire at all.

Has Labor abandoned unions?

Have the unions been abandoned by Labor as it seeks the political middle ground, but have yet to formally realise it?

Greens are waiting on the Left to offer an alternative to the Labor Party if the unions become totally disgruntled. The result could be a union movement split between the traditional forces who hope that something can still be salvaged from a ‘New Labor’ government in the Tony Blair tradition, and those who decide that, as far as workplace relations are concerned, modern Labor is not ‘the solution’ for them.


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