Simple principles of democracy underpin the ACTU’s collective bargaining proposal, insists union leader Greg Combet.

The difference between the labour movement and the federal Government on the issue of collective bargaining in Australia is now clear.

On Melbourne radio last Friday, Prime Minister John Howard categorically committed his Government to opposing any right for Australian workers to collectively bargain with their employer, even where that is what a majority of employees in a workplace want.

According to the PM, the reason Australian employees should have no choice regarding the type of agreement they are covered by in the workplace is that he believes the employer alone should make that decision. He said: “Now our position is very clear and that is that it’s for the employer to determine the nature of the industrial arrangement in a workplace … And we also support the right of the employer to decide the nature of the industrial structure.”

Under Work Choices the federal Government has unashamedly handed employers the unilateral right to make all the decisions about how and on what terms Australian workers will be employed.

In contrast to this, the ACTU last week released a detailed policy discussion paper advocating the right of Australian workers to collectively bargain with their employer. It proposes that if there is a difference of views on the form of agreement to be negotiated, the majority view of the employees should prevail.

The policy proposal outlined by the ACTU is based on three principles.

First, if people freely exercise the choice to be a union member, then they are entitled to union representation. This fundamental and basic right is not protected under the federal Government’s industrial relations laws.

Second, in relation to collective bargaining there should be an obligation on employers, unions and employees to negotiate with each other in good faith.

Third, where there is disagreement between an employer and the employees about whether there should be a collective agreement in a workplace, that disagreement should be resolved by testing the majority view of the employees, whether they are union members or not.

If those employees resolve that they want a collective agreement, then that should bind the employer and good-faith bargaining negotiations should ensue.

This is a democratic principle that should be part of Australia’s industrial relations laws.

The federal Government has misrepresented the ACTU proposal by suggesting that a minority of employees, or even a single union member, could force an employer into a collective agreement against the employer’s will even if collective bargaining is not supported by a majority of employees in the workplace.

This is not true. On the contrary, the enforceable obligation on an employer to collectively bargain with their work force would only be triggered where a majority of workers have expressed a preference for collective bargaining. It is also important to be clear that the policy being advocated by the ACTU does not mean that all collective bargaining that occurs in Australian workplaces would necessarily be preceded by a ballot of employees.

The ACTU proposal is that employers, employees and unions should be free to voluntarily enter into collective bargaining at any time.

Even under Work Choices, most collective bargaining in Australian workplaces occurs by mutual consent between employers, employees and unions. There is no need to place additional hurdles in the way of employers and groups of employees who are already working constructively together.

However, where there is a contest or disagreement about bargaining — where, as is increasingly the case under the Government’s laws, an employer is insisting on individual contracts and the employees want a collective agreement — then under the ACTU proposal the majority view of the workers would act as a circuit-breaker.

The views of employees could be ascertained by various means, such as a workplace meeting, a petition or a secretballot. If there is any doubt or debate about what mechanism should be used, then the Industrial Relations Commission would have the power to order a secret ballot.

The freedom of people to associate in a union and the right of workers to collectively bargain are internationally recognised human rights. These are not new, radical, revolutionary or economically irresponsible ideas.

They are contained in the UN Charter of Human Rights and the core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation, both of which Australia is a signatory to. The principles that underpin these rights are widely recognised as essential to the effective functioning of a successful liberal democracy.

In free and democratic societies, collective bargaining is a fundamental mechanism through which individual employees are able to rebalance the inequality in power and negotiating positions in the workplace between a single worker and their employer.

It is the principal means for giving workers a fair say in the workplace.

Original article appeared in The Australian (22.09.06)