The Guardian • Issue #2033

Time for a centralised bargaining system

  • by Anna Pha
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2033

Prior to the adoption of the Accord in 1983 between the Labor government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Australia had a highly centralised system of fixing wages and conditions. Awards were comprehensive, covering in detail wages, working conditions, occupational health and safety, rights of trade union delegates, etc.

When trade unions presented a log of claims, or employers made demands, negotiations were only around those claims. This is unlike enterprise agreements, which have an expiry date, after which everything is then up for grabs, or even worse employers can cancel an agreement and force workers back onto inferior modern awards.

Awards covered an industry or trade or occupation with pattern bargaining across employers covered by that award. Under the Accord the ACTU agreed to wage restraint, making no extra claims on employers to improve working conditions, as well as cooperation with employers – in other words, class collaboration. When the Hawke/Keating government shifted the focus to enterprise bargaining agreements in the 1980s unions were forced to trade off hard won concrete conditions to pay for part of their wages rises. Wage rises came at little or no cost or even a profit for the bosses.

When unions suppressed struggle, many workers became disillusioned and trade union density fell. This was compounded by structural changes in industry with the loss of some of the most highly unionised sectors of the workforce.

The Accord began the slippery slide downwards with real wage reductions, loss of conditions and suppression of class struggle. In 1996 the Howard government increased the emphasis on enterprise bargaining and brought in individual contracts. It outlawed compulsory unionism and any form of pressure to join a union such as “no ticket no start” that was prevalent in the building and construction industry. At the same time, it gutted awards to twenty “allowable matters” and introduced individual, non-union employment contracts.

While the Rudd/Gillard Labor government overturned Howard’s individual contracts, it made additional regressive reforms to the industrial relations system by outlawing pattern bargaining and introducing the concept of “protected action” as being the only lawful form of industrial action.

Approval to take “protected action” is difficult, limited to when a new enterprise agreement is being negotiated and action can be halted by a court at any time. Failing to adhere to the rules carries heavy penalties and the possibility of unions being sued by employers.

The Rudd/Gillard government gave employers the right to lock out workers during a bargaining period, making Australia one of the few OECD countries to do so.

Industrial action for any reason was prohibited during the life of an agreement.

The Accord and introduction of “protected action” saw industrial action by unions decline steadily. There is a high correlation between the decline in work stoppages and disputes compared with the decline in wages. In the 1980s the average number of disputes, was 1,919 and by the 2010s it had fallen to 198. Or as The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work put it, every decline in the frequency of work stoppages of about sixty lost days per 1000 workers was associated with a one percentage point deceleration in wage increases.

Decentralisation and restrictions on industrial action severely weakened the union movement. As a consequence, profits are at record highs and wages as a share of Gross Domestic Profit (wealth produced by workers) are a record low.

Trade union density has declined from fifty per cent to fourteen per cent since the Accord with only six per cent of workers aged twenty to twenty-four unionised with higher rates for older workers.

Union resources and representatives have been tied up in negotiating enterprise agreements and attempting to meet the requirements for industrial action. Workers in enterprises with low or no union membership have fallen way behind those with strong, militant unionised workforces. The result is a race to the bottom.

Awards have not kept up with EBAs. As a result, on average workers covered by an EBA are paid $601 more per week than those relying on awards.

A system of centralised pattern bargaining and the unfettered right to strike are critical to trade union power and improved wages and working conditions for workers.

In his Second Reading speech to the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke confirmed that, “The prohibition already in the act on pattern bargaining will remain.”

“Bargaining at the enterprise level delivers strong productivity benefits and is intended to remain the primary and preferred type of agreement making,” Burke said attempting to reassure employers they have nothing to fear.

Such “productivity benefits” are spin for loss of working conditions and higher profits and are behind the shift from centralised bargaining to single enterprise bargaining.

The Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill is unlikely to bring about a significant change in this position on its own. Pattern bargaining with a centralised system of collective bargaining by trade unions is the way forward. This must be accompanied by an unfettered right to strike and the right of entry for trade union officials.

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