With 1.8 million members, trade unions remain significant players in Australian workplaces, particularly in sectors such as utilities, transport, healthcare, education and the public service. Mining and manufacturing also have higher than average union representation.
Professor John Buchanan of the University of Sydney Business School says that most workplaces are reasonably harmonious. “There’s a major disconnect between the narratives that are propagated in the public realm and what’s actually going on in workplaces,” he says.
Buchanan says the rise of what he calls “employer militancy” or “management fundamentalism” is the cause of antagonism where it exists in workplaces.
The majority of employers are trying to forge co-operative relationships with unions, Buchanan says.
“Most employers are really reasonable, really decent people. They’re actually getting on and dealing with the real problems in the workplace instead of pursuing ideological campaigns against independent representation in the workforce.
Nigel Ward, a principal at Australian Business Lawyers, says for businesses with an existing relationship with the unions, wage negotiations and bargaining can be a fruitful exercise. “Those persons involved in bargaining know each other, they get together — they don’t want to burn the long-term relationship for this two-year agreement. They sit around the table and they act pretty reasonably with each other,” he says.
Ward says HR managers need to plan bargaining better – “You want to be very careful about thinking bargaining per se is a legal exercise. It’s not; it’s still a matter of practice rather than the law,” he says.
Charles Power, a partner at workplace relations law firm Holding Redlich, says many employers are only paying lip service to good-faith bargaining requirements. “The good faith bargaining principles are not that onerous, and you can just do what’s called surface bargaining, where you do just enough to avoid breaching the principles, but still get away with not concluding a collective deal,” he says.
ACTU senior legal and industrial officer Trevor Clarke acknowledges some businesses only pursue surface bargaining, but bringing unions and employees together at the negotiating table can only improve relations.
“There’s a process of engagement mandated now and that forces people to develop relationships because it’s the process that they have to go through to get an agreement at the end of the day,” he says. “Once you’re in a situation of working with them, good things can happen,” Clarke says.
Relations between management and unions have improved over recent years, Clarke says, and points to fewer days lost to strikes and more enterprise agreements being made.
This is the case at NSW electricity network company Ausgrid, which has not lost a day to strikes in several years. Unions have always played a significant role at the company, where more than 60 per cent of the company’s 6000 employees are members.
But when Maree Slater, executive general manager of human resources, started work there three years ago, the relationship between management and the unions was tense. Unions – not management — were the first port of call for staff when they had a problem and the issue would then be sorted out between management and the unions.
Slater knew if work practices and culture were to change at the century-old organisation, the company would need to engage with staff and form a more effective relationship with the unions.
The first thing she did was conduct an employee engagement survey of more than 6000 staff — 70 per cent of whom responded — to gather information and evidence needed to change the culture.
From there it was a matter of building trust with the workforce. “When you get the evidence and you act on the evidence, it shows employees that management are actually doing what they said they would do and what they should do,” said Slater.
Ausgrid has also used the evidence from the survey when negotiating changes to work practices with the union, and significantly improved the relationship along the way, to what Slater calls an “effective” relationship.
Recruitment and Workplace Relations
An overview of the essential elements of employment practice, from recruitment through to retirement, including current legislation that underpins that practice.
Apply a more collaborative approach to negotiations by learning the skills and knowledge required for best-practice bargaining. Emphasis is placed on a ‘mutual gains’ approach to bargaining.
Employment Life Cycle: the legal issues
Develop practical skills across the employment life cycle: from employment contracts to managing discrimination and social media in the workplace to performance management and termination.
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