ACTU bid for 1970s-style industrial relations system

The Australian, April 12, 2018

Federal Labor will come under union pressure to change laws to allow workers to take legal strike action in support of sector-wide pay claims, as ACTU secretary Sally McManus declared that ­“enterprise-only bargaining” had failed to deliver for workers.

Unveiling a six-point plan designed to lift the wages of workers, Ms McManus told The Australian the Fair Work Act needed to be amended to give greater power to unions and workers to negotiate across sectors and with host ­employers.

Ms McManus said the wages “blueprint”, a central component of the ACTU’s Change The Rules campaign, also proposed that ­unions be able to run “community standard” claims to lift award wages in different ­sectors.

The wages push was condemned last night by employers as advocating a “return to 1970s ­industrial relations”, but the federal opposition said the ALP was open to “constructive proposals” that helped workers get a pay rise.

Ms McManus said the current bargaining provisions of the Fair Work Act gave too much power to employers and workers needed more options, such as sector-wide bargaining, to make bargaining fair and efficient. “Working people need a seat at the table, and we need to be able to negotiate with someone who has the capacity to say yes,” Ms McManus said. ­“Enterprise-only bargaining is failing to deliver, with more and more working people becoming dependent on awards and record-low wage growth.

“In a lot of modern workplaces, the point of economic power is not at an enterprise level. We need to change the rules so that working people can negotiate meaning­fully. That means negotiating across sectors or with host employers. It’s time to let go of the outdated and artificial restriction that allows bargaining only at an enterprise level.”

The Fair Work Act does not ban pattern bargaining — seeking common wage outcomes beyond a single business — but it denies unions and workers the capacity to take legal industrial action in support of it.

Ms McManus said unions and workers should be able to take protected industrial action in support of sector-wide wage claims. “It’s fundamentally fair that people should be able to take industrial action during negotiations as a last resort, as they are across the developed world,’’ she said.

Union officials have nominated transport and cleaning as industries where sector-wide ­bargaining could be applied.

Opposition workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor has said workplace laws have not adequately encouraged multi-employer collective bargaining, particularly in industries with low-paid employees lacking industrial power.

“We are having ongoing discussions with unions and employers to ensure workers are free from exploitation, get a pay rise and have better employment security,’’ Mr O’Connor told The Australian last night. “We are open to constructive proposals that contribute to that goal.”

ALP sources said the party had not come to a decision on whether it would support unions and workers being able to take legal industrial action in support of sector-wide claims. The proposal will be part of negotiations between the ALP and unions in the lead-up to the next federal election.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson last night accused the ACTU of seeking to walk away from an enterprise ­bargaining system that had delivered sustainable and substantial pay rises for millions of workers. Labor prime minister Paul Keating introduced enterprise bargaining in 1993. “Enterprise bargaining ushered in one of the great periods of prosperity, opportunity and middle-class growth in Australia’s history,’’ Mr Pearson said. “Australian business is not willing to throw that away in favour of a ­return to 1970s industrial relations. Striking for industry-wide outcomes would be a return to the law of the jungle.”

As well as lifting the minimum wage, reversing penalty rate cuts and tougher action to address wage theft by employers, the ACTU wants increased legal ­capacity to pursue claims in the Fair Work Commission to ensure award rates of pay and conditions move with “community standards”. It also wants a specialist “pay equity panel” established to achieve equal pay for women The ACTU’s wages blueprint is expected to be endorsed at the ACTU congress in Brisbane in July ahead of ALP-affiliated ­unions pushing for its support at the national conference in Adelaide that month.