Industrial Tea Leaves

It is interesting that more than year since the enactment of the Employment Relations Act, the National Party says it won’t revoke the previously bitterly contested legislation if it becomes the Government.
That’s not to say National doesn’t propose changes, but their stance suggests that fundamental shift in the industrial relations framework is unlikely.
Some key elements may change or at least come under close scrutiny. Union membership driving coverage, multi-employer bargaining, restructuring provisions, contracting out and reinstatement as the primary remedy in personal grievances are likely candidates for consideration.
The appetite for change may depend on how the ERA performs in 2002. With Christmas over, the new year ushered in and some trends showing through, it’s good time to crystal ball gaze. Union membership increased 5.3 percent last year – the first increase in over decade. The Labour Department now puts union membership at 21 percent of wage and salary earners. These are hardly earth shattering statistics given the ERA’s focus on union membership and collective bargaining.
The ERA won’t have the impact unions want unless these figures increase and so the unions are busy trying to win people over. So what can we expect resulting from this battle for the hearts and minds of potential new members?
For start, unions must demonstrate the benefits of membership. Most obvious is wage increase. The unions therefore, will be under pressure to deliver increases which at least keep pace with the cost of living – not easy to do when many businesses cannot afford large increases. Wage bargaining last year was, by and large, moderate and more of the same seems likely in 2002.
And it’s hard for unions to win significant increases when employees fear excessive claims could result in redundancies or close downs – both of which are realities in today’s tough economic climate. Strikes too are high-risk strategy and can so easily turn people off unions given that most employees can’t afford to lose wages and even when the strike is successful, many are left feeling disgruntled at being out of pocket short term.
Because many join unions for the apparent benefits, they’re just as likely to drift away if they don’t see return on their fees. Some individuals join unions involved in bargaining in the mistaken belief that they can simply quit and revert to their old contracts if they don’t like the outcome.
Unions are likely to counter these higher risk scenarios and try to prove their value through closer involvement in daily organisational management. Some workplaces, for example, have introduced voluntary consultative meetings for employers and unions to discuss operational issues. They are increasingly common and work where they deliver some mutual benefit.
However, some workplaces are now being asked to codify these voluntary practices. But if attendance is compulsory, they become tempting target for unions trying to impress. There’s also little to stop the process being captured by disgruntled or politically-motivated factions or becoming vehicle for every gripe going.
The Health and Safety Amendment Bill in select committee at the time of writing this column will also give unions chance to significantly increase involvement on the workplace floor by allowing them to issue hazard notices and initiate private prosecutions.
Competition for membership between unions on the same site is also an emerging trend – sometimes resulting in litigation. There is nothing to stop unions issuing bargaining notices for collective agreements with overlapping coverage on the same site, although employers may issue consolidation notices.
While there’s been predictable 14 percent increase in multi-employer bargaining, most unions have been concentrating on winning the hearts and minds of members and aligning the expiry dates of agreements. This trend points to big jump in multi employer collectives next time round.
Previously worker could be covered by collective without becoming union member – now the ERA requires all collectives to be negotiated by unions. Instead of joining traditional unions many employees previously covered by collectives have formed their own “enterprise-based” unions – last March 28 percent of registered unions were new, but accounted for less than one percent of union members. And many expired non-union collectives have been replaced by standardised individual agreements.
Looking ahead then, unions will continue to try and increase membership, especially in the larger non-unionised sites because they are easier to organise and offer the best returns. They might also consider wider range of member benefits such as the medical and social benefits Australian unions have been offering for several years.

John Button is senior consultant with the organisational performance consultancy The Empower Group.

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