Hockey leaves IR tweak option open

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There is little doubt unions will have more influence under Labor’s IR policy, but the Federal Government may be going too far in asserting they will have an automatic right to participate in wage negotiations, an employment law expert says.

Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey warned last Thursday that union bosses will be able to use one employee in a workplace as a Trojan horse to oppose their agenda in the workplace.

VECCI workplace relations lawyer Peter Vitale says while the devil is in the detail – much of which we would only see after the election of a Labor government – it is clear that Labor’s policy bias in favour of collective bargaining will provide a means of increased union involvement.

Under Labor, employers will be compelled to engage in collective bargaining if a majority of employers vote in favour of it, which will make it easier for unions to have an influence in workplaces where they have even a small presence.

However, Vitale says, it does not appear at this stage that Labor’s policy gives unions an automatic entitlement to participate in negotiations or be party to agreements.

“As a general rule, you could certainly expect that unions will become more active on sites where they have a member under the policy, but beyond that some of these things are in the detail, which hasn’t yet been disclosed,” he says.

Hockey has been backed by advice from law firm Freehills, one of the architects of the WorkChoices legislation.

“[A]n employer with just one union member will be forced to enter into an agreement with a union that does not represent the interests of the rest of their employees,” Hockey says. “It will open up a million small businesses to potential union control.”

Labor has rejected this view, with Labor IR spokeswoman Julia Gillard saying the Freehills advice is wrong.

“Under Labor it will be possible for an employer which employs both union members and non-union members to make an enterprise agreement which the union plays no role in the making of, and with which the union does not agree,” Gillard told The Australian. “Under Labor’s system, unions have no automatic right to be involved in collective enterprise bargaining.”

Meanwhile, Hockey has admitted the Federal Government may still “fine tune” industrial relations laws before this year’s federal election.

Campaigning in northern NSW, Hockey says there were no plans to change the fundamentals of the current IR system, he could not rule out some changes around the margins.

Amanda Gome



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