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Collective bargaining faces resistance from multinationals: study

By: Chris Williams
29 August, 2011

Collective bargaining via the trade union movement is facing strong resistance from multinational enterprises operating in Australia, but union bosses say the system is working.

A research report released recently at Victoria University in Melbourne, found that 41 per cent of HR managers reported that trade unions were not recognised at any sites and that multinational enterprises (MNEs) prefer direct employee representation and consultation with employees in their Australian operations.

Almost 86 per cent of HR managers said they prefer to deal directly with employees and only 34.5 per cent of managers said they would not mind dealing with unions should employees join one.

However, despite recent trends towards the growth in individual level and decentralised employment arrangements in Australia, union representation and collective employment arrangements still remain an important feature within the Australian landscape.

MNEs are still engaging with collective employee representation and consultation, particularly in traditionally unionised sectors such as manufacturing.

Where there is union presence, 75 per cent of respondents indicated that the role of trade unions in managing organisational change was best described by the statement: "discussions take place with union representatives in a way that their views are taken into account but management are free to make the final decision".

Significantly, 71 per cent of HR managers in foreign MNEs reported that they had full discretion over trade union recognition in their Australian operations. Moreover, 68 per cent of foreign MNEs reported full discretion over union involvement in management decision-making, while 73 per cent stated that they had full discretion over employee consultation.

However speaking earlier this month at the Biennial Conference of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, ACTU President Ged Kearney, said since the end of WorkChoices and the second anniversary of the Fair Work era of Australian industrial relations, good faith collective bargaining and the Fair Work Act could be seen to be working.

"Despite the clamour of some business lobby groups, neither Australian workers nor many employers want to undergo another disruptive overhaul of the industrial relations system," Kearney said.

"The Act is delivering real benefits for Australian workers. More are now covered by collective agreements than ever before: 43% of the workforce. And we know that the union wage premium is that the typical worker covered by a collective agreement earns 67% more than the Award."

However Kearney acknowledged that these gains were always at risk.

"Employers and the conservative side of politics in Australia are unrelenting in their attacks on workplace rights, to undermine conditions and entitlements that unions spent decades winning on behalf of working people," Kearney said.

"The Liberal Party is debating internally the industrial relations policy it will take to the next election, but we know, from public statements, that it will seek to…put barriers in the way of collective bargaining."

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