Today, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) held large protest rallies in Melbourne, Sydney and other cities as part of a program of protests occurring around the country this month. The union movement is seeking to highlight its concerns about various inter-connected issues: wage stagnation, insecure work, exploitation of vulnerable workers through ‘wage theft’ and the nature of Australia’s regulatory framework for the relationship between businesses, workers and unions.
Under the banners of ‘Australia needs a pay rise’ and #changetherules, the ACTU argues that the Fair Work Act 2009 provides insufficient support for unions to do their job: organising and representing workers, and bargaining to improve pay and conditions. For the union movement, while the legislation does enable collective bargaining to occur, there are too many impediments: limits on their access to work sites, procedural and substantive ‘hoops’ to jump through in order to take strike action, and a focus on bargaining at the level of the individual ‘enterprise’.
The last of these is a particular bug-bear, as unions argue the economy has changed fundamentally since enterprise bargaining was introduced in the early 1990s. Capital has constantly re-invented itself through a range of complex business models, so unions want to be able to bargain across newer incarnations such as franchise structures, supply chains and ‘gig economy’ platforms.
For employers and the business community, unions have all the legislative rights they need (the Fair Work Act was, after all, introduced by the last Labor Government and has been amended very little in the last ten years). Despite this, business groups contend, private sector union membership in Australia has fallen to below 10% so workers are voting with their feet when it comes to joining unions.
As we head towards the 2019 federal election, the current debate around workplace reform in Australia is shaping up to be as significant as the last major contest of ideas in this area: the ACTU’s ‘Your rights at work’ campaign of 2006-07, and the change of government which it precipitated following the Howard Government’s radical Work Choices experiment.
I’ll use this blog to examine the issues more closely as the debate unfolds over coming months …