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How not to negotiate with workers

By Jim McDonald - posted Monday, 21 November 2005

John Howard’s WorkChoices Bill reflects an authoritarian, undemocratic approach to workplace industrial relations. Worse, the Government has discriminated against workers in recent policy initiatives.

The Howard Government dresses its policy in the rhetoric of choice, agreements and freedom, while subverting individual employees’ rights to representation and collective bargaining, and forcing various sectors to promote individual contracts in return for halfway decent levels of funding.

Evidence for the Government’s bias can be found in the WorkChoices propaganda and material issued by the Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA) under the existing Workplace Relations Act.


The OEA advises employers how to control “bargaining” over Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). It suggests employers “manage employee expectations about the forthcoming agreement by providing parameters around which negotiations can take place”, and “the draft AWA should clearly articulate the organisation’s preferred position in relation to the terms and conditions of employment …”

In other words, the OEA advises employers publicly how to get around negotiating with employees at all. The documentation for employees, however, provides no advice about how workers might gain the upper hand.

And this bias in official material is reproduced in the WorkChoices booklet, which advises that prior to seeking employees’ approval of an agreement, employers will be required to provide a consideration period of at least seven days. Where is the suggestion employees might negotiate their contract first?

The new legislation effectively grants employers a monopoly over determination of terms and conditions of employment when the workforce is not unionised. And where workers have expressed a preference for a collective agreement, even the present Act does not compel the employer to bargain in good faith, as the Boeing case reveals.

John Howard openly supported Boeing in its refusal to negotiate. In response to a question from the Leader of the Opposition, he said on August 10 in Parliament, “Insofar as the entitlement to negotiate a collective agreement is concerned, the existing law means that the company is within its rights in taking the position it is taking. It is fair and proper, under the existing law.”

In other words, the architect of WorkChoices endorses a company which refuses to acknowledge the choices made by the Boeing maintenance engineers. Boeing’s autocratic refusal to recognise workers’ choices for a collective agreement and the PM’s endorsement reveal the ideology of WorkChoices for what it is. Employee choice will always be subjugated to corporate authoritarianism.


Liberal Party policy tells employers “allowing third parties to intervene in your workplace” will “destroy jobs and reduce flexibility”, so John Howard’s championing of employer resistance to collectivism shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But the PM’s position reveals government double standards in dealing with employees’ bargaining power. Collective bargaining and third party representation is acceptable for small business, but not for employees.

In June, the Government introduced legislation to facilitate collective bargaining for small businesses in dealing with big business. Its provisions were welcomed by the PM, the Treasurer, the Minister for Small Business, the Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, the Hon. Warren Truss, and Senator Ron Boswell.

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About the Author

Jim McDonald was high school and TAFE teacher in the 70s, an active unionist for 20 years, a union official for a decade, and taught industrial relations courses for 15 years at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at USQ and Griffith Universities. He stood for The Greens in Wide Bay during the 2010 Federal election and for Noosa in the 2012 Queensland election. He is presently a Queensland Greens Spokesperson and is a delegate to the Queensland Greens Council.

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