If you were to believe the hysteria of employers and conservative politicians the decision of Commission Hodder in the Asahi case is a new and dangerous incursion into the unknown territory of workplace industrial relations. Tim Pallas, ACTU Assistant Secretary.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The principles of law relied on by the union in the case concerned are High Court authorities stretching back to the 1920’s. These decisions however are not dusty old archives but long established and often applied illustrations of the role and responsibilities of unions in our system of collective negotiation.
The recent amendments to the Industrial Relations Act introduced in March of this year had little practical influence on the outcome of this case.
Merit was what determined the outcome of this case, and the Commission rightly found that there was nothing particularly meritorious or fair in the employer behaviour.
Asahi are a non-union employer who made it clear that they determined wages by means of a process that was exclusively reserved to management. The workers concerned were not consulted and were advised by management what the new “bargained” agreement was to be. Some commentators have complained that the workers had expressed no dissatisfaction with this process in the past. How do we know what they really thought or indeed whether they were presented with any practical alternative? The Commission’s decision has given these workers a chance for a real say in how they work and what they deserve to get paid for that work.
What is certain is that the brave new world of enterprise bargaining which many employer organisations lecture us is necessary for the welfare of our community was not taking place at this company.
Equity and common sense dictate that unionised and non-unionised workers should have access to the same rights, protections and obligations provided by the Industrial Relations Act.
Everyone agrees “in principle” that enterprise bargaining is an important element in the transition to a more decentralised system of wage fixation. Every employer mouths the mantra of increased efficiency through collective negotiation and are quick to demand it of unionised workers. In the non-unionised sector this is, by and large, all just words. Enterprise based wage adjustments are not bargained they are imposed upon the workforce and they are at times just as capriciously removed.
The decision in this case does not require workers to join unions against their will, nor does it force agreements upon unwilling workers. What this decision does mean is that collective bargaining must apply to all, and all must be accountable for the process they adopt in bargaining. Employers who treat their workers in a paternalistic or dismissive fashion can no longer avoid consulting and negotiating with them, whether they are in a union or not. If an employer refuses to involve their workers in real collective bargaining then that process will be encouraged by the Commission through the involvement of unions who have demonstrated their commitment to these processes.
The decision ensures fair, democratic treatment for all and is a commonsense safeguard against worker exploitation.
Tim Pallas, Assistant Secretary, ACTU. 20 December 1994