During October, your correspondent had the opportunity to hear several speakers discussing the current state of industrial law in Australia, and it is clear that things need to change.
At present, nearly all employees in Australia are covered by the provisions of the Fair Work Act, which was passed by the Rudd government in 2009. In many ways, this Act was a big improvement on the legislation it replaced, the deeply anti-worker WorkChoices, introduced by the Howard government in 2006, but nevertheless the FWA contains many flaws. It is the view of the Australian trade union movement, including the IEU, that these laws should be changed.
In mid October, your correspondent attended a symposium at Maurice Blackburn, the high profile industrial law firm. We were addressed by Jim Stanford, of FutureWork, Rae Cooper, from Sydney University Business School, and Josh Bernstein of Maurice Blackburn.
Stanford discussed the decline of egalitarianism in Australia over the last 40 years, noting that while profits have increased by 30% in recent years, investment is down, or in his words “business does less, but gets more”. He also noted that productivity is up and rising, but the wage share of the economy is flat and declining.
He also addressed the problem of ‘free riding’, under which union achieve benefits on behalf of their members, but all workers (whether members or not) benefit. This has been one cause of the decline of union membership – why join when you get the benefits? And a good reason why you should be speaking to your non member colleagues and remind them of the benefits that come from union membership.
Bernstein addressed the hostile laws that apply to unions, the hostile political space that demonises unions as something to ‘control’, and a hostile business sector. While the Australian experience has many good things (eg an award system), the heavy limits on industrial action, or arbitration, for example, make it hard to enforce these benefits.
Finally, Cooper looked at how these limitations of the Australian industrial system affect women in particular, noting that the union movement is becoming progressively female (as work in general moves away from manufacturing, and more into the fields of health and education), and arguing that unions need to be more responsive to the needs and wants of women workers (something that I’m pleased to note the IEU already does well).
This seminar was followed by an address at the IEUA AGM on 21 October from Sally McManus, the Secretary of the ACTU. Since taking on the role in March, McManus has been very vocal in arguing that the Fair Work Act is flawed, and needs a fundamental overhaul. She has noted that wage growth is at historic lows, and argues that this is in no small part due to industrial laws that greatly limit bargaining and industrial action.
Under McManus’ leadership, the ACTU has instigated the 'Change the Rules' campaign, to pressure governments and businesses into freeing up the limitations on the legislation that governs our lives at work. The IEU fully supports this campaign, and we encourage all of you to get involved. Details can be found at https://www.australianunions.org.au/change_the_rules.
Australian Pacific College
One real world example of the limitations of the Fair Work Act can be seen in the negotiations for a new agreement at Australian Pacific College. The last agreement expired in September 2016, and members and their Union immediately started pushing for negotiations for a new agreement. The college stonewalled for a time, and then made clear that they did not want a new agreement at all, wanting to ‘harmonise’ employees with the modern award. As the award contains pay rates some 8% lower than the agreement, members at the college were in no doubt what ‘harmonising’ meant!
The Act does contain provisions under which employees can force an employer to bargain (so-called ‘good faith bargaining’), and after nearly all teachers signed a petition calling on the college to start negotiations, the college eventually backed down, and discussions commenced in March.
However, just because the parties started talking, it does not mean there was smooth sailing. The college offered a blanket refusal to all of the Union’s claims, and tried to insist that the new agreement be ‘grandfathered’ for existing teachers, and that any new teachers go on the award. Naturally, this was resisted.
Eventually, common sense prevailed, and a settlement was reached in October for an agreement (with no grandfathering) offering 5.5% over three years (starting in January 2018), along with a lump sum payment in lieu of back pay, and a very basic provision on domestic violence leave (unpaid). IEU Rep Peter Blankevoort was tireless at the workplace, and it is no small thanks to him that an agreement was finally reached.
This is a decent settlement, in line with arrangements at other colleges, and considering where it started, an excellent outcome. But it perhaps the most damning assessment of the Act that ‘success’ in bargaining has such a low bar, and the need for change is clear.