Saturday, October 29, 2011


The Editor,

Industrial disputes are taking longer to resolve and involving many issues. There used to be a system of conciliation and arbitration until the Howard Government abolished it. Now, the same business and employer representatives who applauded the Howard Government, are whingeing they can’t get industrial disputes solved. Well suck on it I say! Be careful what you wish for!! Of course, the Howard Government plan for the abolition of centralised conciliation and arbitration was that it was supposed to take place in the context of disempowered unions, where workers and union members would do what they are told by their employers, and where the executives of companies could make decisions in their own interest with no questioning. Good on the unions for getting organised, and utilising the system to get the best outcome for their members.

Jenny Haines

Lenore Taylor, SMH.

29 October 2011

With unions, bosses and politicians in dispute, old laws and new agendas are being tested.

Air travel crippled by striking pilots, engineers and baggage handlers, angry scenes at the Qantas annual general meeting, rowdy protests by striking unionists on the ports, public servants and teachers downing pens - Australia's current industrial landscape looks like a montage of the most bitter workplace fights from decades past.

And, as always, the characters are anything but bland - the feisty Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, the outspoken Transport Workers Union national secretary, Tony Sheldon - who also happens to be a candidate for the federal presidency of the ALP - and even veterans of earlier battles, such as stevedoring executive Chris Corrigan.

The only thing that has been missing from the daily dose of union claim and employer counter-claim is the politicians; no latter-day Bob Hawke taking on the pilots, no John Howard and Peter Reith helping to break union power on the wharves.

The Gillard government and the unions insist the lack of political engagement is because there is no systemic industrial problem at all.

They say the noise is coming from a large number of three-year industrial agreements in key sectors that happen to have come up for renegotiation at the same time, among them the agreements at the centre of the particularly bitter Qantas dispute.

And they claim the shouting is obscuring the facts, with figures showing industrial disputation at all-time lows.

Still smarting from the rout of Work Choices in 2007 and focused entirely on regaining power, the federal Coalition is only just tip-toeing back into the industrial relations fray that has historically been one of its defining issues.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, yesterday backed two conservative state premiers in demanding that the federal government intervene in the Qantas dispute, a course of action the Coalition's former minister and industrial relations crusader Peter Reith deplored as ''old thinking''.

But the Coalition isn't prepared to say much at all about what it would do in government, just that Labor should be doing more.

Employers insist emboldened unions are pushing the limits of the two-year-old Fair Work Act, using its powers to bargain harder and on new issues that strip away powers that managers need to run competitive businesses in a global economy.

Over time, that could have serious consequences for the economy, they say. And tourism and retail businesses, in the almost-stalled lane of the Australian economy are desperately worried.

Some observers say the corporate complaints are in part aimed at encouraging Tony Abbott's Coalition back to the barricades on industrial relations reform. But increasingly the costs and inconvenience are real.

In this latest chapter in Australian workplace law it seems everything is being tested: the new laws, the reach of the unions, the resolve of the employers, the patience of the government and the courage of the Coalition's ideological conviction.

The government and the unions have statistics on their side.

In the two years since the Fair Work Act took effect, an average of 3.6 working days have been lost per 1000 employees per quarter, compared with an average of 13.5 days per quarter over the Howard decade. Even the rise in disputes in the June quarter is lower than the rise three years ago when these same agreements were last up for renegotiation. Wages growth is not high, and the Reserve Bank says ''upward pressure on wages is tending to ease''.

''There was a slight uptick in disputation in the last quarter and there probably will be this quarter as well but disputation is still at historical lows … and I think the downward trend will continue,'' the Workplace Relations Minister, Senator Chris Evans, says.

But the Qantas dispute is worrying him. He says ''economic damage has already occurred'', that he and the Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, have been meeting regularly until recent days with the company and the unions and ''we are making it very clear that patience is wearing thin''.

''We have made it clear … the time has come for this matter to be resolved and the government will consider using its [intervention] power [under the Fair Work Act] if we think that is necessary,'' he says.

But he dismisses calls by Liberal Premiers Barry O'Farrell and Ted Baillieu for the government to immediately step in as ''a stunt'' and points out that government intervention does not guarantee resolution and is a step the Howard Government had also been very careful about taking. Besides, he says, the only lasting resolution is one genuinely reached by the parties.

In any event, Evans says, while the dispute is about the ''clash'' of Qantas's business plan and the unions' concerns about job security, it has nothing to do with the Fair Work Act or any broader industrial crisis.

But his critics are not claiming a crisis, just that we could be heading for one on current trends. And they think the ''clash'' at Qantas has a lot to do with Labor's new laws.

''We are not saying the nation's economy is about to grind to a halt,'' the chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Peter Anderson, says.

''There is certainly a cyclical element to this … but we are also seeing unions testing the boundaries and using the new laws to start making demands about how businesses are structured, whether contractors should be used, and that is particularly worrying from an economic point of view.''

The Qantas disputes (which began after the company announced it would cut 1000 jobs and increase expansion into Asia) are ''a direct pushback against corporate restructuring'' and the disputes on the waterfront are ''all about a company's right to organise domestic and foreign labour''.

''It adds to a drag on our productivity, directly through the industrial action and, of even greater concern, it feeds into the low levels of business confidence and consumer sentiment caused by the problems in Europe and the political uncertainty at home,'' Anderson says.

The University of Melbourne economist Professor Judith Sloan agrees ''you can't tell yet whether this is cyclical or a new trend'' but adds ''it's looking pretty ugly''.

''This is very union-friendly legislation … [the unions] are trying to go beyond the normal wages and conditions issues and insert themselves into management decisions, they call them job security issues which is a joke … it is often about restricting the use of contractors and labour hire firms and the like, which have all been non-allowable matters for a long time.''

The result, Sloan says, will be to shrink employment. ''It is absolute madness,'' she says.

But Adelaide University's Professor Andrew Stewart says ''almost none of the disputes has anything to do with the Fair Work legislation … these disputes are like the ones we have seen before and will see again''.

The competing views about what is going on and whether any fault lies with the legislation will be aired at an independent review of its effectiveness starting in January. Evans says it will be practical, rather than a ''rehash of ideological positions''.

The Coalition, cautiously, says it will also be guided by what it finds.

Having begun the year insisting it would make no change to the new laws, it was pushed by business leaders and some pointed interventions by Reith and some Liberals on the current backbench to shift to a position contemplating unspecified change ''within the architecture of the Fair Work Act''.

Unlike the government, the opposition spokesman for workplace relations, Senator Eric Abetz, does see some real, systemic problems.

''It does look like we are slipping back to where we were before the waterfront reforms …,'' he says.

''I do have some difficulty with unions trying to act as de facto business managers, telling companies when they can or can't employ contractors …

''That does not allow for the degree of flexibility that you need as a workplace waxes and wanes.

''Many businesses are concerned about the rate of industrial action that we are seeing and the unwillingness of trade union negotiators to talk about productivity. That needs to be addressed because we cannot afford wage increases above [inflation] without productivity trade-offs.''

And he says the Coalition also thinks ''the government should be looking at why the individual flexibility agreements allowed for under the act are not being taken up''.

Evans says he suspects the ''Coalition has made a decision that rather than formally return to individual work contracts they will try to amend the existing laws to achieve the same thing by another name''.

If he's right the new Coalition policy would be welcomed by Peter Anderson who says business intends to ''carry the argument'' that over time the new laws will have to change to re-establish individual contracts.

And according to Andrew Stewart, the task of ''carrying'' that argument to the ears of the Coalition is amplifying business's current industrial relations complaints.

''You have to understand the real audience the employer groups are targeting. Publicly they direct their comments to the government, but they know this review will not re-examine the foundations of the Fair Work Act and that these current disputes would be pretty much the same under the old laws. The real object of their lobbying efforts right now is the internal debate in the Liberal Party,'' he says.

''They had thought they had lost the debate for the forseeable future, but now they see the prospect of a Liberal Government … and the opportunity to rekindle the torch of industrial relations reform … the pragmatists within the Liberal Party are still holding sway but business is pushing as hard as they can to get the Liberals to adopt a more radical policy.''

The ACTU president, Ged Kearney, agrees. ''The employers are leaping at anything to say the Fair Work Act is not working,'' she says. ''That is not the case, this is a normal bargaining process, it is just mischief making.''

However, Sloan believes ongoing industrial disputes will strengthen the case for change.

''I think the Coalition should wait until the pendulum has swung and people realise what is going on,'' she says. ''They have no incentive to flesh out their agenda until much closer to an election …''

With the Qantas dispute dominating the headlines, there are both immediate economic and broader policy reasons for the government to try to steer it towards resolution.

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