Recently, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President Sharan Burrow signaled her intention to broaden the workplace bargaining agenda by pressing the Rudd Government to remove restrictions on bargaining content and to install a strong independent umpire with the power to arbitrate to settle disputes. She argued that employees have a role in the broader community and bargaining should take place over a number of issues in society including responses to climate change.
At the National Press Club she called the Rudd Government’s proposals on bargaining content “unfair, unnecessary and outmoded” and argued that “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. Workers should be able to include any or all of these in a collective agreement.”
She even cited the Reserve Governor Glenn Stevens who suggested to the House Economics Committee earlier this year that productivity increased when business and employees “are able to bargain widely across the range of practices”.
It is unclear whether the Reserve Bank Governor meant all issues or just those pertaining to possible increases in productivity, but it has certainty brought the issue in to public debate.
Ms Burrows speech was made in response to Deputy Prime Minister and Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard’s insistence that restrictions over agreement-making content would remain in place in its new IR legislation due to be introduced to Federal Parliament next month. While the WorkChoices prohibited content rules would be dropped, the Government would introduce the principle of matters pertaining to the employment relationship as established in the Electrolux case some years ago.
Ms Gillard stated that while unions, employees and employers “will be able to bargain over a wider range of content than they can at present under WorkChoices”, with some exceptions such as deduction of unions dues or salary sacrifice, they will not be able to take industrial action in pursuit of matters if they do not pertain to the employment relationship between the employer and the employees or a union covered by the agreement. Bargaining agent fees will continue to be unlawful under the new Labor’s substantive legislation.
Other demands by the ACTU also have the potential to increase the scope of bargaining. These include: greater arbitration powers for the new Fair Work Australia; ensuring workers’ right to union representation and “good faith” bargaining with unions; greater Federal rights for independent contractors with a move to a national industrial relations system; ensuring no worker is disadvantaged through award modernisation; greater unfair dismissal protections for employees by including casuals in the 15-employee small business limit; and abolishing the ABCC.
The ACTU has also called for a “top-up” in employers’ contributions above the minimum wage for parental leave provisions recommended by the Productivity Commission, which is likely to be accepted by the Rudd Government.
While few people could argue there is a need to debate these important policy issues, the question is whether trade unions should be entitled to bargain over such issues which extend way beyond the workplace.
Some may argue that the ACTU response over widening the bargaining agenda to more social and environmental issues has been more about political opportunism rather than addressing work and conditions of its members at the workplace.
Australian Minerals and Mines Association CEO Steve Knott has gone further by highlighting the potential risks in broadening the bargaining agenda as "a framework for more strikes on more matters".
He argued that “The likes of Dean Mighell and his followers will soon be given the legal capacity to have 'fun' seeking payroll deductions, unfettered right of access to worksites and pursue unsustainable wage increases as part of the new found broader protected industrial action rights”. While this response might be overstated, it does raise important issues regarding the scope of enterprise bargaining and the potential implications.
In these uncertain economic times the ACTU and unions in general should focus on the “bread and butter” issues of wages and employment rather than be an engineer of social reform. Whatever the merits of “bargaining” over these important social and policy issues, they are unwelcome distractions from the main game in a period of great economic uncertainty.
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