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  Issue No 99 Official Organ of LaborNet 15 June 2001  




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The Shopfloor, United

Chris Christodoulou argues that without an active union membership, workplace democracy is just a pipe dream.


Wollongong's Finest


I can't contemplate Workplace Democracy without it having active union membership as its core component. It is a little like contemplating a democratic society that is functioning fairly without an effective trade union movement.

Having been involved in the Union Movement for over 20 years, both at a rank and file and official level, I can say that I can't think of many instances where we go close to having real industrial democracy in the workplace and we certainly don't have any models where the owners or managers of capital have handed over an equal say to the workforce about the running of the business.

The word "democracy" in an industrial relations sense is really about having an equal "bargaining position". It may be possible to have greater meaning than that but without, in the first instance, having an equal bargaining position you will never actually achieve a non-adversarial model of workplace democracy.

Union membership has significantly declined in Australia and its decline unfortunately has coincided with the deregulation of both the labour market but also our industrial relations system. The factors associated with the decline in union density are probably not new to many of you but as a reminder they include:

· The decline in traditional unionised manufacturing industries and the growth in unorganised service sectors;

· The prolific growth in casual and other forms of precarious employment; and

· Ten years of union industrial inactivity due to the Accord.

This industrial inactivity saw us take our eye off the main game, which was organising.

Whilst there might have been political democracy at a National level between the ACTU and Labor Government, we forgot to engage workers in the workplace and to ensure unionism flourished during this period of industrial stability.

Some unions became lazy and forgot about our greatest asset - delegates and activists in the workplace.

During this time of industrial harmony we didn't have employers knocking on workers doors saying we can give you "the unionists" something more positive to do about having a say in your workplace. They didn't ask them to be involved in issues such as:

· outsourcing and its implications;

· the use of labour hire firms;

· introducing new work arrangements, which better meet the needs of workers families; or

· the introduction of new technology etc.

The sad reality is that most employers don't believe workers should have any say in decisions that might affect the running of their business.

The approach of the trade union movement is now very different, but not new. We are very much focussed on rebuilding trade unionism through workplace delegates and activism and hand-in-hand with that is real desire by unions where enterprises are well organised to hand back some of the day-to-day authority to the workplace delegates and members.

We want to encourage delegates in unionised sites to take on more responsibility and not rely on a paid union official to come and fix up their problem. We want management to recognise the role of delegates and listen to the views of the workers without always expecting the full-time union official to turn up on site or mop-up after the workers have gone out on strike.

This is where, in my view, there can be a real role for the notion of Workplace Democracy, that is in organised workplaces. In workplaces where bargaining is on an equal "footing". Where workers are well organised it is possible, in my view, to devolve some greater responsibility back to the workplace.

And why do we take this approach? Because we want our full-time officials out there helping organise workers in non-unionised sites. Helping workers who have been forced onto AWA's, or are being ripped off by other means, move back to awards or collective agreements and to restore their bargaining position.

Only with a restoration of their "bargaining position" can we expect to have the possibility of positive workplace democracy. Workplace democracy simply won't work in unorganised enterprises.

Time and time again we have seen employers try to set up sham Consultative or Workplace Committees, which seek to do nothing else but to either undermine union activity or stop unions becoming involved.

Even the most sophisticated attempts don't survive in the long term.

They often collapse as a consequence of a range of factors including:

· Employers not resourcing the Committees;

· Employees not being happy about the structures (undemocratic) and the authority vested in the structures;

· Disparate groups of workers not speaking with one voice; and

· Most of the time because workers usually wake up to the fact that they achieve little in these structures because they are mainly a tool for the boss to restrain employee dissent.

A bipartisan approach to Workplace Democracy can only work if two factors are in place:

1. when unions are involved through their delegate and where delegates are properly resourced and trained to participate; and

2. where there is a genuine desire by both parties to engage. It takes two to tango and unless both parties have built up a mutual respect for each other it will soon to back to an adversarial approach.

Without union involvement at a workplace level and real commitment by the parties to make it work, Consultative Committees, Workplace Committees, Work Councils or whatever you may wish to call them are simply doomed to fail.

The message that I would like to send to the advocates of workplace democracy is we need to fix up some fundamentals first.

1. We need to have employers genuinely recognise the rights of employees to be active members of their union.

2. We need to abolish mechanisms that detract from a collective approach. AWA's are a good example.

How can you ever expect real workplace democracy to occur via Workplace Committees in establishments that work under AWA's.

Do we really expect that workers in these circumstances are in an "equal bargaining" position?

3. And finally, we need to re-establish the legitimate role of unions in society and in the workplace. Nobody, not even change to industrial laws (although they can help) can do this for us. Unions need to do this by re-building an active delegates structure.

I am all for Workplace Democracy as long as its foundation has a solid base of workplace activism and employers accept the legitimate role of unions in our society.

This speec was presented at a Lloyd Ross forum on Workplace democracy at Sydney university on June


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 99 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: In Defence of the Umpire
Australian Industry Group chief Bob Herbert on why the Industrial Relations Commission is worth fighting for.
*  Unions: Diary of a Dude
One.Tel worker Warren Manners thought he had a dream job and no need for a union. That was until the money ran out.
*  Legal: Dot.Com Casualties
The high profile collapse of One.Tel had significant implications for its employees. But what about its contractors?
*  Industrial: The Shopfloor, United
Chris Christodoulou argues that without an active union membership, workplace democracy is just a pipe dream.
*  International: A Saharawi Woman's Plea
Sydney unionist Stephanie Brennan travelled to Africa to witness first-hand the struggle for independence in West Sahara.
*  History: Once Were Tuckpointers
Trawling through the files, Paul Howes stumbles upon some unions that represented workers long departed.
*  Politics: Out Of The Comfort Zone
In his new book, Brett Evans argues that while Labor is honing its reform agenda, it is still struggling to reform itself.
*  Satire: World Domination
The US has threatened not to pay the UN the money it doesn’t pay anyway.
*  Review: Wiped Out
Bread and Roses is a new movie about the struggle of invisible office cleaners to gain dignity and respect at work. Pity you won’t see it here.

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»  Workers Online 100th Issue Bash
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»  Tool Shed

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