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A predictable income - it's all workers want

By Graeme Haycroft - posted Wednesday, 5 July 2006


The industrial relations “debate” has many layers. What genuinely impacts upon workers barely make it above the white noise of ideology. What we are witnessing is a seismic shift of power, influence and money. The biggest losers are the Labor Party and the unions who used to fund them.

But that never gets mentioned.

So we never hear, "unless we remove these newly created rights of workers to make their own decisions about their workplace conditions, and recreate the union monopoly to do that for them, we won't have enough money to fund the next elections”. What we hear instead is “individual workplace agreements (AWA) are the devices by which employers exploit workers, so we will ban them to protect workers”.

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Of course simply banning AWAs won't solve the union and ALP funding problem. Collective workplace agreements (CWA) - once arcanely complex - are now simple to do. So they also thwart union fee-collection efforts.

No, what the ALP and unions have to do is recreate the union monopolies so that a monopoly rent can be extracted from employers eager or desperate to introduce rational work practices.

Unions have long understood that the main game is to deliver simple workplace objectives, whereby workers largely get paid for what they do, when they do it, and the employers get a commercial advantage not available to their, generally smaller, competitors.

The Coles Myer and Woolworth workplace agreements are classic examples. In return for effectively 100 per cent union membership, the retail oligopolists pay only notional penalty rates for Sunday work, otherwise it's flat rates across the board. True, this almost universally suits workers because it means they have greater flexibility, and if they want to, they can work extra shifts to earn more money. But until WorkChoices came along, Coles Myer and Woolworths competitors could not achieve the same competitive situation. But now they can do it easily. So, while it’s all right for union members at Coles Myer and Woolworths to work this way, it’s “exploitation” for the corner convenience store non-union employee to have identical working conditions under an AWA.

Of course the reality is that, once Coles Myer and Woolworth’s competitors can easily achieve similar or better cost-effective labour arrangements, then it's only a matter of time before Coles Myer and Woolworths cuts the union out of the action. After all, they are no longer necessary and their presence simply adds another layer of cost.

With more than 50,000 employees at $300-a-pop union fees, big bickies are involved. Almost none of these employees would be in the union at all if Coles Myer and Woolworths changed their policy of "union membership encouragement" and simply stopped the payroll deductions of union fees from employee pay packets. Now you can see what Kim Beazley is so concerned about. No union monopoly means no union fee means no contributions to the ALP.

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You would think that the very thing that affects every workplace in the country would be well understood by everyone, but in fact it's not. Workers have no trouble in understanding with respect to themselves, but ask them for their opinion upon how AWAs might relate to somebody else and you get a completely different answer.

If you ask them what they want for themselves, then it's only ever two things. They want more money and they want a predictable continuity of that income. Given a choice these two things would count as 95 on a scale of 100. Whatever comes third or fourth "doesn't amount to a hill of beans".

Yet the debate seems to rage on about the ostensible loss of other workers’ entitlements, as if how you split up workers' wages actually matters. We recently witnessed the black farce of the Employment Advocate Peter McIllwain informing the Senate that a random sample of AWAs lodged showed a majority of them removed most entitlements, as though this was a bad thing. But so what? Standard professional methodology is for the AWA or CWA to remove all possible (and largely useless and unwanted) entitlements then recreate the actual workplace deal as a simple common law letter of offer, which the employee can actually understand, and which puts real money in their pockets.

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About the Author

Graeme Haycroft has been involved in workplace issues for over four decades. He is one of the founders of the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland.

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