Freedom at work is in the eye of the beholder

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Freedom at work is in the eye of the beholder

Controversy surrounding the new workplace arrangements in the university sector makes freedom to choose union membership and bargaining arrangements nebulous. The Federal Government announced yesterday new arrangements it claimed would introduce more choice and flexibility into the university workplace.

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Controversy surrounding the new workplace arrangements in the university sector makes freedom to choose union membership and bargaining arrangements nebulous.

The Federal Government announced yesterday new arrangements it claimed would introduce more choice and flexibility into the university workplace.

The arrangements curtailed union activities on campuses, made it a requirement that Australian Workplace Agreements were offered to university staff in addition to collective agreements and required more flexibility in agreement making.

National Tertiary Education Union senior industrial advisor, Ken Mcalpine told WorkplaceInfo the only way university staff could freely choose whether or not to join a union was if the union gave them information on which they could base an informed decision.

The only reason a university would want to offer AWAs was to lower wages and conditions and the flexibility requirements would remove job security - it had nothing to do with improving freedom of choice, he added.

The workplace university changes had been simmering for several months since an outline of the changes linking university funding to workplace arrangements surfaced in May this year, as part of the Federal Government’s 2003-2004 budget.

The furore was ignited yesterday when the Federal Workplace Relations and Educations Ministers, Tony Abbott and Brendon Nelson, released details of the changes.   

Making universities adhere to certain workplace relations criteria to satisfy funding requirements meant the Government avoided having to run the workplace relations legislative gauntlet with its proposals.

However, for the link between workplace relations and university funding to become a reality higher education legislation currently before a Senate Inquiry would have to pass the Senate.

If this occurred universities seeking increased funding under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme would have to adhere to Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements, as well as the Commonwealth Government’s National Governance Protocols.

The changes would apply to agreements certified after 22 September, 2003.

Remaining neutral

The Government had never hidden the fact it wanted more direct employer and employee relationships in the workplace, unfettered by union involvement.

One-way to achieve this, according to the Government’s university proposals, was to prevent automatic involvement of third parties and promote freedom of association.   

‘Institutions are to neither encourage nor discourage union membership. In particular, institutions must not encourage or signal support for union membership, for example, through handing out forms during staff induction processes.’

The Government also wanted to preclude Commonwealth University funding from being used to resource union positions and to provide full-time on campus office space for unions.

In addition, workplace negotiations must not be restricted to third parties, such as unions, allowing non-union members to take part.

Any involvement of third parties must be by request from the employees.

Nor were the universities to give out employee names and details to third parties unless legally required. 

Individual agreements

A further Government proposal was to make it a requirement that workplace agreements included a clause that offered AWAs to all employees.

The AWAs were to operate to the exclusion of certified agreements or prevail over certified agreements to the extent of any inconsistency.

Informed decisions

NTEU’s Mcalpine told WorkplaceInfo that real freedom of association could only be achieved if employees could make informed decisions.

Unless unions were allowed onto campuses to hand out information on the union employees would not know they existed, so therefore could not make an informed choice.

The AIRC had approved an agreement between the universities and the union to go on campus and hand out union information during inductions.

Employees had never been coerced into joining the NTEU, but employees had been coerced into leaving, Mcalpine claimed.

Paying union salaries

The proposed requirement to stop Commonwealth funding being used to resource union salaries and provide on campus offices were not helpful, he said.

He claimed no designated union positions were funded by the Commonwealth per se.

When the union and the universities were bargaining it meant that union members who were also employees of the university would have to spend time negotiating with the university.

‘A union member, who says, works in the library may spend 25 hours per week negotiating arrangements, so may require a time release from normal duties for three days. That salary is paid by the university,’ he said.

‘The university can’t bargain with people who don’t have the time to bargain.’

He claimed it was better for the university to deal with one negotiating team then spend greater resources to deal with 6,000 individuals concerning AWAs.

Non-union members already get a say

Also, regardless of whether a university employee is in a union or not they still get a say over union negotiated agreements, he said.

There were already meetings with union and non-union members and most non-union members were happy for the union to negotiate.

He said it was hard for an individual non-union employee to influence changes at a workplace if they didn’t have the mandate provided by union membership.

Flexibility farce

The Government’s push toward AWAs and more flexible working arrangements was a back door method of rolling back the employees’ choice to shift to permanent secure employment, Mcalpine claimed.

Part of the Governments flexibility proposals included a requirement not to limit a mix of employment options, including casual employment.

He said this was detrimental to university staff. Previously, over 8,000 university staff had been moved from short-term contract work to permanent work, he added.

In one case, an employee had been on his 29th contract with a university.

The NTEU had spent considerable resources negotiating an award which made it illegal to set up these types of short-term contracts that lacked job security, he said. The push for AWAs would now displace this. 

He said the NTEU would be fighting the changes.

 
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