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State of the Union
Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today about the upcoming changes to the industrial relations laws in this country.
As practitioners, you are no doubt aware of many of the technical details around the upcoming changes and debates around some of the proposals for further reform.
What I want to do today is broaden this debate and place it in the context of the modern workplace
- the attitudes of employees towards their work
- the attitude of workers towards unions
- and the broader attitude of workers towards politics
In doing so I will be drawing on a major research project conducted for Unions NSW by Auspoll in January and February this year - the research has not been released publicly and you are the first audience to be presented this information.
I do this because the industrial changes we are about to see are the products of a political battle that has a number of dimensions
- a battle for political supremacy between the Coalition and the ALP - with a once- in a generation opportunity to weaken Labor's trade union basis.
- a battle between the Commonwealth and the states - where there is a short-term benefit in creating a climate of confusion over economic management.
- a broader international battle between ideas of the neo-conservatives of the USA and Australia and the social democrats of Europe.
My underlying argument is that the industrial relations changes are driven by these political objectives - and that working families - and indeed industrial practitioners - are merely collateral damage.
And it is because they are be driven by political purposes - and not by sound industrial relations, or even economic, considerations - that they will fail the basic test - whether they will improve the lot of either employees or employers by promoting a more productive harmonious workplace.
About the research:
Over the past 10 years, Unions NSW has commissioned quantitative polling from Auspoll each summer to chart the climate in which unions are operating.
We began the practice in 1996 after the Coiali8tion won power and have continued it regularly ever since/.
We poll the statistically meaningful random sample of 1,000 workers, both members and non-members, who ear under $60,000 per annum - the drivers of our national economy - and the people that political wisdom says have transferred their loyalty over to the Howard Government.
The research is a good reality check for us, we work hard on specific campaigns and issues each year - but the overview means we can fit our work into a broader context.
The initial research tested reactions to four basic propositions:
- management has more power than unions
- I'd rather be in a union
- Un ions in Australia don't look after their members
- Australia would be better off without unions
Reactions to these propositions have now been tracked over ten years now - and the consistency of the findings mean we can make the following statements with some authority:
- The clear majority of Australians think management has more power than unions - this year's figure of 54 per cent is indicative of previous polls
- Far fewer Australians are dissatisfied with the performance of unions than they were in 1996 - when we first polled this question 43 per cent agreed with the proposition - that number is now down to 25 per cent - and this includes non-members as well as members.
- An overwhelming majority of Australians want to see trade unions remain part of the social structure - 90 per cent disagreed this year that Australia would be a better place without unions - the lowest this figure has ever gone in 78 per cent.
But perhaps the most striking statistic is that nearly double the number of union members agree with the statement "I'd rather be in a union'. - it was 50 per cent this year and has never fallen below 44 per cent.
This statistic is relevant and can be interpreted in a number of ways:
- first, there is clearly a question about trade union recruiting methods - reinforced when 44 per cent of those who are non-members but say they would like to be in a union say they have never been asked
- secondly, there is a perception that some industries are not relevant to unions (25 per cent)
But more broadly, and taken in concert with the responses to the question about whether Australia would be a better place without unions, it is clear that there is no ground swell of support for an agenda of attacking trade unions.
This is important to understand and provides a counter balance to the federal government's claims that unions are an historical anachronism whose passing should be a matter of universal joy.
In recent years, Unions NSW has extended its State of the Union report to build a fuller picture about the attitudes of workers - and the differences between different demographics of workers
These add to the picture built from our benchmark questions.
On general attitudes to work there a sense that the intensity and demands of work are increasing
- 54 per cent agree or agree strongly that they are working harder than ever before
- one in three workers say the number of hours they are working is putting stress son their home life - with wo0rkers who are parents even more likely to agree with the proposition
- 37 per cent of workers are working un paid over time - with those on individual contracts are most likely to be working for free
We have probed these attitudes further in focus groups - and the clear message is that most working families do not see any respite from this increase in work intensity - they see it something that is inevitable and that they have to manage.
In fact, it is interesting that the idea of what a worker can expect has shifted - ideas like a job for life and standard working hours are now a thing of the past - accepted as being so by many of the people we speak to.
Instead, the point of reasonable work practices has shifted to regularity of shift hours. That is - I am prepared to start at 6am on a Saturday - but I need to know I am working the same hours each week.
Most families have two income earners - where they have children they have established an elaborate system of arrangements to keep the family ticking over - cross-overs of shifts, help from in-laws, paid child care.
All this is managed and accepted - but there is a point where things would get too much and the dominoes would begin to fall
- and that is the regularity of working hours - the idea that an employer could change shifts at just a few hours notice.,
Of course, this is one of the 'flexibilities' that Australian Workplace Agreements' aims to introduce in the name of productivity
- indeed the template AWAs being promoted by the Employment Advocate give employers total discretion to vary hours at minimum notice in this way.
This is just one way in which labour market deregulation, as proposed by the Howard Government, could tip working families over the edge.
Indeed, the increased pressure many working families feel is the natural consequence of the labour market deregulation of the past ten years - a process that began with the Keating Government and has only accelerated unde the Coalition.
The message from this research is that many people are close to breaking point - and that, in itself , has profound implications for our policy makers - not just about our indust5rial relations performance but our broader productivity
- how productive is a worker who operates under stress?
- when that stress places pressure on home life, how does that effect work performance?
- And where that stress leads to family break down, can the broader costs to the community even be quantified?
Looking at attitudes of different groups of workers helps us build our picture of the current state of the Australian workplace - and the impact further labour market deregulation will have - more fully.
Without doubt, working parents - those juggling their jobs with family responsibilities, are the group who currently feel the most vulnerable.
Anyone who has had a child will tell you it's a life-changing event, a point where they begging to feel their responsibilities as both a provider and nurturer.
And the basis of this responsibility is secure employment:
- 93 per cent of parents say job security is very important to them - and this is the one thing that labour market deregulation sets out to undermine in the name of flexibility.
- The point of becoming a parent is a particular point of vulnerability, where 74 per cent of parents say their attitude to work changes.
- Sadly, for many the manifestation of these changes attitudes is guilt - one in three (34 per cent0 of parents say that due to work commitments they don't give their children the parenting they deserve; 47 per cent say they don't have the time to be as involved in their kids education as they would like.
- It leaves parents squeezed to such an extent - that - even with the major financial commitments that many families have in this crazy property market - nearly half (45 per cent) say they would reduce their working hours and take a drop in pay if they had the chance.
I find it ironic that our Prime Minister and his government - who put themselves forward as socially conservative and family-focussed should be promoting policies that affect patients in this way.
It is the end point of the labour policies, but one that seems to be stifled in a silent cry for help from many working families.
Younger workers don't have the same life commitments, but many are keenly aware that what they are doing now matters in the long term.
We were somewhat surprised to find young workers breaking the stereotype of footloose, transient workers, which the federal government often puts forward as the happy beneficiaries of labour market deregulation.
In fact, our research suggests that most younger workers have a serious long-term career plan:
- while transient, 40 per cent of workers say they are collecting skills and experience from other sources.
- but 40 per cent do see their current job as long term.
Where there is agreement is that, even where work is seen as transient, the majority (60 per cent) are not prepared to trade off conditions for extra money
- if the employers want to use young workers as the vehicle to cash in conditions, they are putting out the 'not for sale' sign.
As for older workers, who have lived through the changes of the past decade, they have quite a complex take on the world of work.
Personally, they are worried
- 71 per cent say they are concerned they will not have enough money to retire when they want to
- 61 per cent say they are concerned that if they lose their job they won't get abno5ther one that is as good.
And 77 per cent say they do worry about the next generation of workers.,
But, when asked whether the changes to work over their lifetime have been bad for working people - 59 per cent disagree.
What to make of this?
Undoubtedly, the opening of the Australian economy has increased national prosperity- the material well-being of working people has improved - you would be mad to argue against this.
But there has been a price - and that price has been a sense of personal security.
The question we must now confront - and one in which we can be guided by older Australians - is at what point to we take things too far?
- at what point do we cash in our chips and say that is enough deregulation?
- the balance has shifted too far away from working people.
If the reaction of our respondents to broader political questions is anything to go by, we may have reached that point already.
In an era where polling normally finds slight variations in party political polling - a 55-45 split is seen as decisive, the responses to questions we asked we about broader political values are overwhelming - cutting across political lines.
- 80 per cent agree that ' the Australian economy is going very well, but it still seems to be a struggle for working people to make ends meet..
- why? Well, according to 71 per cent of people, both Labor and Liberal are too close to big business - a proposition that less than one per cent of people disagree with strongly!
This disillusionment with both sides of politics is strong -
- 70 per cent of respondents say they 'would like Labor to go back to the days when they stood up for workers' - a proposition that had the strong support of Labor voters (84 per cent), but the overwhelming support of Liberals too (62 per cent)
- while the majority of people (60 per cent) agree that 'the Liberals are still the party of big business', a concern for Labor is that less than half of the respondents (47 per cent) accept that "Labour still seems to care somewhat more about working people than the Liberals".
So what should government be3 doing - well our respondents had a clear message to politicians:
- 88 per cent of Australians agree that the 'government has a moral obligation to ensure that every worker earns enough to have a decent quality of life."
- nearly as many (76 per cent) believe the "government has a moral obligation to ensure that working parents don't have to work such long hours that they don't get enough time for their family"
And the final message to Canberra - 72 per cent of people (including 65 per cent of non members) agree that "if the role of unions are weakened in Australia we will end up with even more work related pressure on families"
So What Does this Mean?
It is easy to dismiss research as being the results that the commissioning party asked for.
But this research was somewhat different - we were genuinely interested in the outcomes and went to pains to present questions in a way that would elicit a genuine response.
What it says to me is that attitudes to work are somewhat confused at the moment.
There is an acceptance that the world has changed and a preparedness to work within the new parameters.
But at the same time, a vast majority of workers are crying out for some sort of leadership, which allow them to gain a modicum of control over their destiny.
I'm not saying the return to the central arbitration system - where everybody's conditions were pegged to the Metalworker Award is the answer.
But I do question, whether their really is the thirst for more wholesale deregulation and an outright attack on trade unions.
What is clear is that the support for the institution of unionism is far wider than just union members - even if you are not in them., you want them to be effective, but it does bring a sense of fairness to work in general.
There are models of radical reform and then there are plans for improvement.
The Howard Government is taking us on a trip into the unknown - to become an international outlying nation where secret contracts define our employment relationship - a totally free labour market.
There is an alternative, and ironically, it is the model that led to the NSW state system, which is in danger of being trashed in the process of the Howard government's grab for state powers.
That process started with the premise that industrial relations was a process of give and take - it involved developing a best practice by giving ownership of the model to employer and employee representations'
It made fairness and productivity partners in the workplace and gave the independent umpire the powers to drive home that bargain.
Unsurprisingly, it has become the model of every state system - and has delivered the nation's most productive and harmonious economy.
How sad that the federal government - instead of embarking on a hostile takeover - is not using the same methodology
- to develop a federal system that allows company to be profitable
- while giving workers the security to have a full life both within and outside the workplace.
As our research shows, this is precisely what the Australian public expects of their leaders - not the base politics that we about to see unfold.
Speech delivered to NSW Industrial Relations Society, Tuesday March 29, 2005
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