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On strike signs

As with most IR topics, enterprise bargaining has taken its fair share of beatings. Employer groups continue to call for tighter controls and unions call for loosening of the chains. But what will the next era hold for this contentious industrial relations issue?

Once again while there are certain aspects from both sides that have some merit, the fact remains that the bargaining provisions of the act do not restrict the employers from achieving productivity improvements during bargaining. They do not restrict employers from achieving flexibility during bargaining.

The only aspect of the provisions that truly hurts employers is the unions ability to bargain for anything… and everything.

During the Workchoices era, the word “union” couldn’t even appear in an agreement. Whilst this is not quite technically correct, some employers took it upon themselves to turn the screws while they had the chance. Matters pertaining directly to the employment relationship were strictly controlled, and any deviation was met with the cone of silence.

Some practitioners now purely view the last two years of bargaining as the union clawing back what Workchoices took away. This is correct, but I think it is really the calm before the storm.

So what then happens for the next round of bargaining? The answer is simple: Expect the unions to push, and push hard.

The recent BHP, Qantas and Patricks disputes were but a test of the Industrial Action waters. There are still a large number of agreements due for re-negotiation later this year and into 2013, so stay tuned.

In terms of the ‘Good Faith’ element of bargaining, the Committee on Freedom of Association of the Governing body of the ILO (CFA), an organisation that the union movement hold dear, when it suits their purpose, endorsed the following principles of Good Faith Bargaining:

“It is important that both employers and trade unions bargain in good faith and make every effort to reach an agreement; moreover genuine and constructive negotiations are a necessary component to establish and maintain a relationship of confidence between the parties”

Read into this statement what you will, the truth is that if both sides aren’t prepared to move away from the decades old attachment to adversarial bargaining and aren’t prepared to truly bargain in good faith, then no changes to Fair Work Act will make any difference to anyone, and unfortunately the only ones who will suffer are the employees.