United we stand, divided we fall


Over the past two days the Australian Council of Trade Unions has been holding an executive meeting in Melbourne. Fifty odd union chiefs and officials are attending this scheduled gabfest. The meeting’s agenda is long, but in reality there’s only one item on it that really matters “ the impending shift to a single national industrial relations system.

What’s incredible about this is that the union movement is only now having what’s being called a ‘war council’ to nut out a strategy when they’ve known for months, if not years, that a unitary system was John Howard’s ultimate aim.

Three weeks ago Kevin Andrews’ gave a speech that broadly outlined the legislative changes in the wind. Over their years in power the Government has slowly sought to erode union influence. Changes in the workplace wrought by technology and a shift toward small businesses, plus casual and contract labour has assisted the Government in their endeavours and has seen union membership numbers fall to a paltry 23 per cent of all workers.

Late last year, even with control of the Senate looming, John Howard signalled the Government wasn’t prepared to wait until July to start dismantling the current industrial relations system. Various bills were tabled before Christmas that included measures to excuse small businesses with fifteen employees or less from paying redundancies, and another to make it easier for small business to axe workers, aptly called the Fair Dismissal Bill. There’s also the Right of Entry Bill that aims to restrict union access to work sites and a sneaky little amendment to the Trade Practices Act to top it off that will ban unions from being involved in the collective bargaining process for small businesses. All were shuffled off to various committees but they’re up for debate again today in the Senate. It’s unlikely any of the bills will make it through “ at least not yet.

If this is only a taste of what’s in store in the months to come, the union movement will want to get their act together rapidly. The grim reality is unions need to fundamentally change the way they do business in order to not only remain relevant and maintain influence but to just survive.



There are some, such as ACTU Secretary Greg Combet and AWU National Secretary Bill Shorten, who recognise that unions must broaden their doctrine from the fairly narrow approach of getting what benefits they can for their members and supposedly protecting them through obtuse resistance and, particularly of late, dubious common law agreements.

Shadow Industrial Relations spokesman, Stephen Smith, told Parliament this week that the James Hardie victims would have received nothing if not for the intervention of the ACTU. Smith was on the money and Combet quite rightly received many plaudits for his dogged advocacy. With wins like that and provided unions can adopt a ‘whole of business’ approach when dealing with employers, the national bodies have much to gain from reform. It’s about competing (just like any other business) for members and making sure the customer is satisfied with the services provided – not radical measures yet a cultural change within the union movement is required. This is starting to happen but not quickly enough and there will be some big losers when the IR reforms are made law.

Around 65 per cent of the workforce already operates under national awards. The mooted changes will bump that figure up to 85 to 90 per cent. A myriad of state awards will be over-ridden by the national system. Not only would there be very little for State Commissions and Tribunals to consider but suddenly, the balance of power shifts away from state union czars like Queensland’s Bill Ludwig and Western Australia’s Kevin Reynolds. The control these union dinosaurs and others have wrought over the years has been all encompassing and there are many politicians who have benefited from their patronage. But their time is ending and their influence will be seriously curtailed under a single national system.

Yet it’s the Premiers who hold the key as to whether Howard and Andrews will get their way without too much trouble. As far as the unions are concerned they’re making all the right noises so far. Geoff Gallop vowed to keep his system – just in time for the WA election. After a bit of prodding from his Industrial Relations Minister John Della Bosca, former Party Secretary, so to did Bob Carr. Peter Beattie also predictably backed up his colleagues but there’s a rat in the ranks in the form of Victorian Industrial Relations Minister, Robert Hulls. Fancy telling the ABC he’d be happy to travel around the country with Kevin Andrews expounding the virtues of a unitary system – what was he thinking?

When all’s said and done the Premiers will roll over because it’s in their interests to do so. Many of their own government workers already adhere to national awards. Unions are trying to get their State’s to reverse this but it’ll never happen. The States will save some money by abolishing their own courts and commissions – between six and ten million each across the board. But, the savings to business if they only have to deal with a one-stop shop are worth many millions more. It would be a smart move for Howard to offer the Premiers an incentive to make their task easier and more attractive. That encouragement could come in the form of a tasty package that addresses the skill shortage crisis to be administered by the States.

Having said that, there are some legitimate concerns about the nuts and bolts of administering a unitary system. Andrews has admitted that for a time the current dual system will need to stay in place until they can find a way to successfully mesh state and national awards. The task may prove to be Herculean. In the retail sector alone there are at least six different awards to consider. Different rules in every state govern meal breaks, crib breaks, leave, overtime, it goes on; and small minded as it may sound, when you start fiddling with people’s entitlements be prepared for a lot of long and loud whinging. Howard and Andrews can talk about getting a more productive and flexible workforce until the cows come home but unless workers can be convinced that a single industrial system does not equal a drop in wages and conditions their reforms will be met with some resistance and suspicion.

Politically, Kim Beazley needs to get Labor’s response right. He’s already told the Business Council of Australia that a unitary system is a ‘hypothetical that can be considered’ and that it’s a ‘low order issue’. He may want to reassess those priorities in a hurry because reform is coming. What Labor fears most is a continued drift between unions and the party. NSW’s John Robertson has already re-badged his organization under the guise of Unions NSW as he believed they were too many negatives in being too closely identified with the Labor Party. Fabulous endorsement. Labor’s also dreading the prospect of the reforms banning direct donations by unions sourced from membership fees. Howard’s been threatening to do it for years.

There are those who say it shouldn’t be just the unions who are forced to give ground, they shouldn’t be the only ones to change. On an even playing field “ fair enough “ but I’m afraid the Government resoundingly won the election “ they’ve got all the power! So, instead of bleating about how unfair the whole situation is, unions need to get a bit clever. They certainly need to come up with some better ideas than ‘targeting politicians at home’ – one of Sharon Burrows suggestions. An ad campaign can raise some awareness in the community but won’t address the core issue that’s crippling the unions “ backed up by extensive research “ that not only do many workers believe unions are no longer relevant, unions are not addressing the needs of a growing army of small businesses, casual workers and contract workers.

These issues were certainly on the mind of Shoppies supremo Joe De Bruyn who came to Sydney late last week to have talks about the very subject, pre-empting this week’s ACTU executive meeting. His presence on any steering committee the ACTU establishes can only be good news. Ever the pragmatist, De Bruyn saw the writing on the wall some time ago. He wields enormous power within the union movement but uses it in a considered and measured way. He could find himself being a bridge between the unions and the Government as the conservative catholic union’s boss will find a great deal of common ground with the equally right-wing Christian Kevin Andrews.

A newspaper editorial yesterday said that the union movement wouldn’t be able to constructively engage in a reform agenda because their history precludes it from doing so. This will only happen if the unions cannot embrace change. The union movement has a proud history as an agent of change “ but over time some unions have become insular, self-serving institutions. There are unionists out there who can think more laterally, people who can think beyond what they might lose. The answer lies in persuading people that what they have to offer, their expertise and their services, will help them live better not just work better.

The fact that the unions have left it so late to try and come up with a coherent response is an indication of how far behind the game they really are. Despite plans for an emergency awareness campaign, it has been slow going in Melbourne as there are too many competing agendas. It may be that presenting a united front is nigh impossible for the union movement and that, above everything else, will be their undoing.

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