Is industrial action set to dominate 2012?
It is very tempting as an observer of industrial relations in Australia to be drawn into hyperbolic comment about the level of industrial disputation at present.
My own view is that this is a course to be avoided unless the evidence is there to back it up. For all of the debate about Bureau of Statistics figures on the amount of time lost to industrial disputation, the evidence is mounting that we are facing an intense period of industrial disruption.
This may seem an obvious statement to those people and organisations that have been free with comment and submissions; and we can all see what’s in the media about public servants, nurses, Qantas and the chicken processor, Baiada. But my sense is that the effects are only starting to trickle down to average SMEs. What is happening that makes all of this such a concern?
The first and most concerning aspect of these disputes is the willingness of unions to defy the decisions of the industrial umpire. For a union movement very fond of invoking respect for Fair Work Australia when it suits, the conduct of the Australian Nurses Federation and some of the vitriol directed at Qantas management is a signal of the problems with the Fair Work Act itself and the government behind it.
The ANF have heavily backed against the prospect that the State Government would get tough with nurses, calculating no doubt that this would be a political no-go zone. The ANF most recently dared the Fair Work Ombudsman to take them to task for breaching the Tribunal’s order. Cloaked with this “immunity”, rather than the legal immunity which Fair Work Australia has ruled twice in a few days that they are no longer entitled to, the industrial action in hospitals continues. For good measure, they are challenging the decision in the Federal Court today.
On the Qantas front, we are getting daily reminders of a time when unions scorned the industrial tribunal as the “bosses’ court”. As has been written elsewhere, none of this is harming TWU boss, Tony Sheldon’s campaign for elected office within the ALP. This is a bit like the cricketer who is given out and spits the dummy at the umpire. The key thing to appreciate in the Qantas case is that the union’s campaign is not about terms and conditions of employment. The key to that dispute is the unions desire to have an effective right of veto over management decisions to engage contractors, in particular off shore contractors. That is something that would never have even allowed under Howard government laws, even before Work Choices.
At Baiada, the National Union of Workers, usually considered a moderate force in the union movement, has been ordered by the Supreme Court of Victoria to stop an illegal picket and the company is now claiming $1.7 million in damages. There has also been an accompanying campaign to discredit the operations of the company in the media. The ACTU is now calling on the public to boycott the company’s products. Too bad if you’re a fan of the take away outlets that use their chicken; oh and maybe also for the kids employed to run those outlets.
Most of the blame is being pointed at the Gillard Government’s Fair Work Act. To some extent that’s a fair criticism. That law has taken away from employers the options of individual agreements with employees or even genuine collective agreements not involving a union – and let’s not forget that unions do not represent about 85% of the workforce.
But there is a more fundamental problem brewing. The unions are emboldened by the tacit support of the Federal Government; their Federal Government – witness the outrage expressed by that government at Qantas management, even though they had to step in to the legal debate on the company’s side. The option for Qantas was to slowly bleed as the unions imposed 1,000+ cuts of industrial action.
If you polled SMEs, Alan Joyce would be more popular than Gillard and Abbott combined. Those SMEs will be holding onto their hats as more unions join the party in more workplaces.