Relationship building important for unions

In the first instalment of a six-part series, Noel Dyson considers the question of how to deal with unions.

UNION membership may have fallen to 15 per cent within the private sector in recent times but experts still acknowledge that unions have a role to play in the workforce.

Like them or not, unions are a part of the industrial relations mix in many industries, and the Western Australian Government has increased their relevance by insisting that it wants a collective approach taken to workplace relations.

To deal with a union an employer needs to understand how the union works and what its concerns are.

Clayton Utz workplace relations and employment partner Glen Bartlett said employers with a union presence at their sites needed to build a workable relationship.

“You also need to understand the levels within a union. If you’re having a problem with a union you need to find out where that problem is occurring and why,” he said.

“It could be a problem at the shop steward level or at other times it could be at the organiser level. You have to try and get a personal dialogue going.”

Freehills national employee relations practise head Russell Allen said employers were not compelled to talk to unions in most cases, but they took that route at their peril.

“If your workforce is unionised then the union has a relevancy. Having a relationship with them can be quite helpful,” he said.

“But you get back to the question of whether your work-force wants the union there or whether the union wants to be there.”

Unions WA secretary Stephanie Mayman said the relationship needed to exist if both companies and unions were to go forward together.

She said employers and unions needed to work together on things such as award modification, something that could prove vital with the Government’s proposed changes to trading hours.

“It’s a matter of people working within the system. You need good relations to support the award changes. You need to talk,” Ms Mayman said.

“We’re seeing some positive developments with industries recognising the new changes and working with them.”

However, there are some who argue that unions should only be tolerated if they already have a presence in the business.

In some cases businesses have been able to remove the need for unions altogether. The argument is that, if the workers can get a better deal from management, why would they need a union?

One example is Rio Tinto’s Hamersley Iron operation, where management took a more consultative approach with employees. Over time that eroded the unions’ hold on the workforce.

It should be noted, however, that the consultative, inclusive approach itself eroded over time and the unions are now working very hard to get back into the picture.

Chamber of Commerce and Industry director employee relations Bruce Williams said past experience had shown that business should only deal with unions if they absolutely had to.

“What employers learn over the years is that what the broader community believes – that unions are only looking out for their members – is not always the case,” he said.

“They find that the union often acts in the interests of the union rather than the members. The Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry showed that.

“Employees often get used as cannon fodder.”

While it is true that legislation has increased the power of unions in WA, they are trying to recover a lot of lost ground.

Many put the fall in union membership in WA down to the previous government’s workplace relations legislation, which made it easier for employers to cut, and employees to negotiate, wages and conditions directly. But there also has been ample evidence of unions falling out of touch.

Mr Williams said legislation allowed unions to hold a monopoly over the area they covered.

“Whenever there is a monopoly, the organisation that holds it usually becomes lazy,” he said.

The Maritime Union of Australia, however, has been highlighted as an example of a union that bent with the times during the State workplace agreements regime of the 1990s.

It set up a bargaining agency called MUA HTS, for MUA Here To Stay, to assist members negotiate workplace agreements.

Patrick Stevedores later eroded its power, with the help of the Federal Government, during the bitter waterfront battles of the late 1990s.

Mr Williams makes an interesting case about legislatively backed monopolies because in some cases unions have been able to wield almost absolute control over an industry.

The recent Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry questioned the tactics of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, saying that in some instances the union’s tactics had bordered on illegal.

The commission highlighted instances where companies were forced to pay money for ‘casual’ union tickets or face strikes, and where workers who had refused union demands to take part in industrial action had found it difficult to gain further construction work.

It should also be noted that not all unions are the same.

While unions such as the CFMEU and the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union are considered to be very militant, others such as the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association are thought to be more reasonable and prepared to negotiate.

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