With the introduction of the Rudd Government’s final IR reform legislation anticipated later this month with its predicted focus on industrial relations consensus and workplace negotiation, attention is now turning to the ability and willingness of employers and unions to form strategic partnerships at the workplace.
This will be associated with greater employee and union consultation with management over business decisions as a means to balance the needs of shareholders in maximising financial returns and satisfying workers demands for greater job security and real wage increases.
While the Rudd Government is finalising the detail of the last instalment of its industrial relations reforms, the union movement is stepping up its campaign to influence key proposals in the Rudd Government’s “Forward with Fairness” legislation.
These include abolishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), removing WorkChoices restrictions on union’s right to enter workplaces and outlawing pattern and multi-bargaining, and introducing good faith bargaining provisions in the Rudd Government’s workplace reform legislation.
This changing IR environment has also been matched by the changing political environment as the new Labor Government cements its position as the party of the “progressive centre” of Australian politics. The rhetoric is not unlike former British Prime Minister Tony Bair’s Third Way politics of the mid 1990s where union’s role in Labour Party policy was greatly reduced and more centralised workplace partnership approaches were encouraged through changes in legislation and financial incentives.
Significantly, this included establishment of £5 million “Partnership Fund” which was part of a set of legislative reforms encouraging industry to embrace the concept of partnership through the adoption of initiatives to find ways best develop consensus and understanding between unions and employers.
Underpinning this approach was a centrist political philosophy of governance. Advocated by the centre-left of politics, it embraces a mix of free market and interventionist philosophies. For some trade unions in Britain it represented a undermining of left-wing values and a betrayal of Labour’s working class roots.
However, whatever the criticisms from left wing British unions, the Blairite years did introduce legislative reforms which included union recognition and union-employer partnership initiatives along with other reforms including the establishment of a minimum wage and the acceptance of European Directives over working time arrangements and family leave arrangements.
In Australia, unions are reigniting their IR reform campaign to challenge some aspects of the Federal government’s IR agenda and have targeted left leaning Labor MP’s to force changes to current Rudd workplace reform proposals. This is especially in relation to the attempts by the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and Construction Forestry Mining and Engineering Union (CFMEU) to abolish Australian Building and Construction Commission and ensure changes to collective bargaining and union rights to entry provisions.
Employers have also taken the opportunity to use current non-union enterprise agreements to by-pass unions. As a consequence, there has been precious little evidence from unions or employers of developing a union-employer partnership approach along British lines.
For Australia the lack of willingness from employers who wish to maintain managerial prerogative over the decision-making process, and from unions who fear their power will be diluted and principles in standing up for workers compromised are major challenges to developing a partnership approach in Australia.
Traditionally unions see their role and interest in conflict to management based on protecting workers interests as opposed to management interests in maximising returns for shareholders. This view is outdated and ignores the realities of the new modern workplace and the development of a capitalist society.
While changes in the workplace with the introduction of greater workplace driven productivity pay increases and superannuation based on stock market performance have given greater common interest between workers and employers at the workplace, the challenges for a consensus based partnership approach in Australian workplaces seems as elusive as ever.
Whatever past political and ideological positions, unions and employers will need to understand the interests of workers is in the best interest for the firm, and recognised such shared interests will provide value not only for shareholders in the future but also for workers.
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