It is only fair that non-unionists who are prepared to accept better pay, job security, health and safety and other benefits from bargaining agreements may be asked to contribute, like their other workmates, to the cost of negotiating the agreements says ACTU President Sharan Burrow.
This month the Australian Industrial Relations Commission refused to certify a number of enterprise agreements containing fees for union bargaining services.
In effect, the decision means that employers, their employees and unions in a workplace can democratically and unanimously agree on an enterprise agreement, but the Commission will refuse to approve it.
Employer groups and the Federal Government intervened to have the agreements rejected and both are guilty of badly misrepresenting the issue to Australian workers.
The introduction of fees for bargaining services is a decision that can only be made by a democratic majority of employees – including non-union members – at the workplace. Employees who do not want a service fee can vote against it.
It is only fair that non-unionists who are prepared to accept better pay, job security, health and safety and other benefits from bargaining agreements may be asked to contribute, like their other workmates, to the cost of negotiating the agreements.
Intervention by Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott to prevent agreements between employers and employees from being certified is hypocritical and politically motivated.
It makes a mockery of the government’s rhetoric stressing the importance of allowing agreements between employees and employers without unnecessary, third party interference.
The Minister’s meddling in the case follows the Senate’s rejection of key elements of his heavy-handed legislation to ban union service fees last year.
Mr Abbott should get out of the way and let employers, workers and their elected representatives decide for themselves what is best for their workplace.
The fair and democratic principles behind bargaining service fees are well established in many other advanced countries. The International Labor Organisation does not see bargaining fees as inconsistent with rights to freedom of association.
Unions accept that their principal responsibility is to attract and recruit employees as members. The bargaining fee is not a substitute for union organisation – it is not unionism by the ‘back door’.
But it must be recognised that unions do deliver very substantial benefits for non-members covered by union-negotiated agreements. A range of data shows that such agreements consistently deliver higher wage outcomes than any other form of agreement.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data indicates that union members on average earn $99 a week, or 15%, more than non-members. Union members are also far more likely than non-members to be entitled to annual leave (89% of members vs 72% of non-members), sick leave (90% vs 72%), and long service leave (85% vs 62%).
Other benefits like paid maternity leave, for example, are provided for in 7.9% of union agreements, compared to only 2.6% for non-union agreements, according to a study by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training.
Under the Government’s own workplace laws, union-negotiated enterprise agreements benefit all employees in the workplace, not just union members. Unions support this approach because it prevents discrimination.
Where the benefits of union-negotiated agreements apply to all employees, and there is a significant cost to unions in the bargaining process, surely it is fair enough to ask the non-unionists for a fee for the service provided. After all, the union members pay for the service through their membership fees.
The Commission’s ruling this month ignores a unanimous (but unbinding) statement by the Full Bench of the Federal Court in the Electrolux Case last year. The legal debate will no doubt continue until the Federal Court or even the High Court resolves it with a definitive ruling.
In the interim, the ACTU believes that fair-minded Australians will agree that a fee for a demonstrable and substantial service provided by unions is a democratic way of sharing the costs between all those receiving the benefit.