|Issue No 20||02 July 1999|
They’re Not All Bastards
Interview with Peter Lewis
The Australian Industry Group's Roger Boland is one employer representative who believes trade unions will continue to play an important role in the economy - and society - of the future.
Let's start with Reith's second wave. You're on the record as warning it goes too far. How so?
It's not so much about going too far. However AiGroup has a number of concerns about some areas including the prohibition on project agreements for the construction industry, the new requirement that parties have to pay to seek assistance from the Commission to settle disputes, the removal of long service leave from the list of allowable award matters and we are wary about the onus to be placed on employers to eliminate closed shops. In respect of the latter issue though, the actual wording of the Bill has largely removed the concern.
Are you concerned that there are ideological elements to these reforms which may not be rooted in the practicalities?
I think some of the proposed changes are tinged with ideology but what political party doesn't run on ideology?.
What about the first wave of reforms that have already passed?
As a general proposition we think the 1996 changes work well. The changes to awards, the bargaining process changes have worked fine. Where it hasn't worked for us is in relation to the levels and incidence of industrial action in Victoria. We've argued strongly for some strengthening of those compliance provisions - section 127 hasn't worked that well in our experience; access to protected action has allowed some unions in Victoria to abuse it. Essentially because of the Victorian situation we have argued for the stronger compliance provisions; if we had an environment in Victoria more like the one in NSW, then it may be that we wouldn't have pushed as strongly for those changes, if at all.
At one level it must come down to: what is industrial relations there for? From the unions' perspective it's there to help equalise the bargaining position between employers and employees. How do you see it?
On a theoretical level, we say the current act has struck just about the right balance between the interests of capital and labour. We are pushing for some tougher measures in compliance because of renegade unions in Victoria. Apart from that and other measures in the Government's Bill which largely amount to fine tuning, the balance is about right. Unions and their members now have a statutory right to take industrial action in support of enterprise bargaining claims - a right they never had before 1993, so there is a better balance between competing interests.
How has globalisation impacted on that equation and the relationship between unions and employers?
It's led to a situation where employers and employees have to take more direct responsibility for their actions rather than rely on centralised control of the wages and IR system. This has led to significant increases in productivity much of which can be attributed to a more flexible system based on enterprise bargaining. As far as relations between unions and employers are concerned, in most cases I think they are very good and it is more a mature productive relationship. Unions in manufacturing and construction in Victoria are the exception.
Why do you say this leads to increased productivity? Why do you think its good not to have the third party in the system?
I'm not saying there shouldn't be third parties. I think unions and employer organisations have a legitimate role in the IR system, so I'm certainly not suggesting the elimination of third parties and I include the industrial tribunals in that. What I am saying is that given the world economic environment, Australia is far better off with a system that relies on the enterprise to determine the level of wages and employment conditions with an award safety net to protect the low paid. A centralised system in the Accord environment may have been appropriate for the times. The world has moved on and so must the IR system. In my view we will never go back to a centralised system whatever political party is in power. Economic imperatives and globalisation will not allow it.
From an employers' perspective, what are the valuable things that unions offer?
I think the most valuable service is collective representation. For example, many employers in manufacturing and construction would prefer to deal with employees collectively, through their union, rather than on an individual basis. A good illustration of that is the fact that 1.3 million employees are covered by collective agreements while only 50,000 are covered by individual agreements, that is AWAs. That is a story in itself. Ninety per cent of collective agreements are made with unions representing their collective membership. So the preference is for collective arrangements. Having said that, employers are increasingly becoming fed up with the mindless militancy of a small group of unions and are exploring ways of either creating alliances with more moderate, responsible unions or dealing directly with employees.
So you don't think the benefits of an AWA for a big employer are that great?
I think there is a mixed role for them - an important role but I don't think even the Government would suggest that the purpose of AWAs was to replace collective bargaining. AWAs tend to suit a small business or small groups of employees in big business. AWAs are also proving very useful for single purpose arrangements such as the cashing out of accrued leave entitlements. AWAs are an important option which Ai Group supports.
Your organisation was one of the main beneficiaries of the Accord. Five years on what is your evaluation of the Accord?
I've got a more positive recollection of the Accord than many people of that era. We achieved a lot of good things in the metal and engineering industry in award restructuring and training and in containing the growth of real wages at a time when it could have gotten away from us if it hadn't been for joint commitment to broader objectives. The Accord was appropriate for the time. That is no longer the case. As I said before, the world has moved on and there will be no return to an Accord.
Do you see a path to decentralisation that doesn't leave workers left behind?
We cannot afford to leave workers behind for reasons of social and economic cohesion. Any system regulating wages and working conditions has to pay particular attention to those in weak bargaining positions. That is why a fair and just safety net is so important. Whether that safety net should in the future be awards is a moot point but there must be a proper safety net.
Beforethe last federal election, the ALP came out with a policy which attempted to wind back the clock to some extent. What would employer groups be looking for next time around from Labor?
I think employers did see the last policy as winding back the clock and going back to the Brereton legislation. There was no support within the business community for that. Hopefully the ALP is reviewing its policies in that respect and will bring them more up to date. I think they'll have to face up to the reality that the current legislation is just about right. If they endorse that, they'll probably get reasonable support from business. I don't think the business community, overall, is looking for a radical second wave of legislative change. I don't think they're looking for a Big Bang New Zealand approach. I think the general view among our members is that it's about right. They don't want a Des Moore-type radical deregulation approach over the next few years. Evolutionary change? yes. But not to the extent that it gets out of kilter the balance between capital and labour. Minister Reith has raised the idea of the Corporations Power - we have to look at that, if only to get rid of the enormous baggage that goes with the Conciliation and Arbitration power and its implementation. For 100 years, the implementation of that power has become so distorted that it's a mess. If Corporations Power can clear that out, but at the same time, as the Minister has proposed, maintain the Industrial Relations Commission, which still has a proper role to play in settling dispute and in setting minima, then that must be seriously considered
What about issues like job security and contracting out. Do employers feel any sort of responsibility to workers?
There's been an enormous shift in employment patterns from full-time employment to the use of more casual labour and part-time labour,. A lot more employers are using independent contractors and labour hire companies to do their work. You can understand unions' concern when you have 28 per cent of the Australian workforce on casual work. I have a personal concern about the social implications of that number getting any bigger. What the solutions are, I don't think the Australian Industry Group has found those yet. Amongst employers as well there is some concern about Australia having the highest incidence of temporary employees outside of Spain. but the enormous competitive pressures on employers and the need for flexibility is pushing them more and more to these alternate forms of labour.
You think they're doing this reluctantly?
They're doing it because they don't see any other alternatives. Some are doing it because they see the costs of employing full-time labour as too high. In small business there is still the concern about unfair dismissal laws. We've just done a regional survey of our members and unfair dismissals still comes up as a primary concern: that if you take someone on the law makes it hard to terminate their employment. they see it as being easier to take a casual on or got a labour hire firm to do it for them. It also gets rid of concerns about annual leave, long service leave and sick leave and the like. It makes it much easier for an employer if someone else has that worry
Given this mindset, and your personal concerns about the impact of precarious employment, what needs to happen for business to engage with those broader issues?
One thing would be a more constructive dialogue between employer organisations and unions and I don't think either side has really put enough effort into generating that sort of dialogue. Simplistic solutions proposed by some unions like increasing casual loadings to deter employers from taking on casuals or reducing working hours or setting up costly trust funds to allow for portability of employee entitlements will only worsen the problem. What is needed is a rethink of our whole approach to work, education, retirement and family and the linkages between these.
Finally, gazing into your crystal ball 20 years, how will industrial relations be conducted and will there still be unions?
As I said earlier, the change in our industrial relations system is distinctly in the direction of more decentralised arrangements. We have come a long way in a relatively short space of time but there is probably some more distance to travel. I would say though, not all that much farther if the Government is successful in getting its latest changes through the Senate. Looking out 20 years is a long time. In five to ten years, the system we have will, I think, be more a refinement of the existing system than a radically different one. As for unions, I do not think there is any doubt that they will still be around. Take New Zealand for example,. Even after massive deregulation the more forward-thinking unions, unencumbered by ideology, have survived to the extent that 80 percent of collective agreements are still negotiated by unions as bargaining agents.
Interview: They’re Not All Bastards
The Australian Industry Group’s Roger Boland is one employer representative who believes trade unions will continue to play an important role in the economy - and society - of the future.
Unions: Always the Pay is No Good
Fair Wear's campaign for clothing industry homeworkers is changing the way we think about consuming.
History: A Refreshing Advance
Women workers organising in the NSW Rail and Tramways Department Refreshment Rooms in the 1920s.
International: MAI Back on the Agenda
After being ditched in the wake of an international cyber-protest, the World Trade Organisation is trying to salvage the MAI from the ashes.
International: Courage Against the Odds
A Cuban trade union leader urges for a 30 year blockade to be lifted, with a fundraiser to be held this Thursday.
Review: Without You I'm Nothing
British pop music doesnt come any better than Placebo.
View entire latest issue
© 1999-2000 Labor Council of NSW
LaborNET is a resource for the labour movement provided by the Labor Council of NSWURL: http://workers.labor.net.au/20/a_interview_boland.html
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005