ABC TV’s Lateline Program speaks to ACTU Secretary Greg Combet about union plans for a new system of collective bargaining.

TRANSCRIPT Australian Broadcasting Corporation Broadcast: 14/09/2006 Reporter: Tony Jones View interview online

TONY JONES: Now to our interview and at the National Press Club yesterday the ACTU secretary Greg Combet unveiled the union’s blueprint for scrapping Australian workplace agreements and replacing them with a system of collective bargaining. It’s been widely reported that his plan is at odd with the Labor Party’s position and a Beazley Government would enforce collective bargaining only where a majority of employees in a workplace wanted it. The Prime Minister says the majority does not matter to the unions, but tonight Mr Combet claims he’s been misrepresented. He also outlined what he would expect to happen in the mining sector in Western Australia where companies like Rio Tinto have up to 95 per cent of their workers on individual contracts. I spoke to the ACTU secretary in our Sydney studio just a short time ago. Greg Combet, thanks for joining us.


TONY JONES: Are you seriously proposing an IR model where a minority of workers in any workplace can force an employer to agree to collective bargaining with a big union?

GREG COMBET: No. What we are proposing is something based upon three essential principles. Firstly, that if people freely exercise the choice to be a union member, then they are entitled to be represented. And I think that’s a fundamental thing that’s important to establish in law that’s not protected currently under the Government’s IR laws. The second principle is that in relation to collective bargaining there should be an obligation on employers, unions and employees to negotiate with each other in good faith. And, thirdly, that where there is contest between an employer and the employees and the union, if a union is representing people, about whether there should be a collective agreement or not, then that contest should be resolved by testing the majority view of the employees. That’s our proposition.

TONY JONES: Let’s go back one step then. Let’s say there is only one union member in a workplace. Can you force the employer into a collective bargaining arrangement? GREG COMGET: I would like to know how, but what we are saying –

TONY JONES: That’s what the Government is saying that you are doing. That’s what Heather Ridout is saying you are doing and that’s what the ALP appears to think you are doing.

GREG COMBET: No, I don’t think the ALP thinks that. I know they don’t. But it’s not surprising that business and the Government would misrepresent our view. What we are saying, and it is quite a significant thing for the union movement to be debating a policy such as this, is that at the end of the day, whether there is going to be collective bargaining in a workplace and there is a difference in view if you like, between an employer and the employer’s workforce and the union, it should be resolved by asking, in a democratic way, what the views of the majority of the employees are and if they resolve that they want a collective agreement, we say then that should bind the employer and there should be a good faith bargaining negotiation that ensues and there should be no outs for that. The idea, just to go back to this one member thing, is, what we are saying about that is if there is one member there that person is entitled to be represented. They are paying their union member fees but if we’ve only got one member in an entire workplace we’ve hardly get a strong bargaining position. And, at the end of the day, if there is going to be collective bargaining there, it will depend upon the level of support among the employees, whether they are union members or not.

TONY JONES: Let’s get to the bottom of whether employer groups, like Heather Ridout, the Australian Industry Group, seem to think there will be an obligation. Is it simply because you are arguing the good faith principle has to apply? In other words, you can force every workplace to a vote as to whether or not that workplace, even if there is only one union member, to a vote as to whether that workplace will go to collective bargaining?

GREG COMBET: Well, it would be a rather silly thing for us to do I think. If we only had one member, I think. Wouldn’t it? For the unions to be able to approach a collective bargaining situation in a workplace, the obligation that we would carry, that our policy suggests is that we’ve got to do our work with people and we have the talk to the employees, even if they are not members, and find out whether they do want a collective bargaining negotiation and what are the issues are of concern to them. What sort of pay increase are they interested in, etcetera. Our proposition is founded upon us doing that organisational work and if we don’t have the support of a majority of people, and the employer doesn’t want to bargain, then we are obviously not going to be going very far. The thing that perhaps business and the Government is, I think misrepresenting, is that we are saying there should be a general obligation on people to bargain with each other. And, look, most collective bargaining takes place by consent. Even under John Howard’s laws, employers and employees and a union representing people come together by agreement and negotiate a collective agreement and there is no contest about it. And we are proposing that continue. Even if, say, we’ve got less than 50 per cent of people who are union members, it is often the case that the majority support bargaining, the employer consents to it, collective bargaining goes forward. There is no need to put any further hurdles in the way of that process. However, where there is a contest where an employer is insisting on individual contracts, such is happening now, and a union and employees want a collective agreement, then you’ve got to find a circuit breaker, otherwise you have destructive and damaging disputes that can’t be resolved. And we’ve got one in Adelaide at the moment. It is happening. Employer refusing to bargain collectively and insisting on John Howard’s individual contracts, these AWAs; now has locked out the employees and sacked three of the union activists. How do you get through this? All the employees want a collective agreement. How do you get through it? What’s the circuit breaker. We are proposing a circuit breaker, the majority view of the workers.

TONY JONES: Explain how that circuit breaker in your system would actually work. Would it be a vote? Would it be a secret ballot?

GREG COMBET: It could be a secret ballot. It could be a workplace meeting where there is a clear majority expressed by the employees. It might be a petition. It might be patently obvious that the employees want a collective agreement, such as it is in this case in Adelaide. I don’t think the employer would dispute that; probably the Government wouldn’t even dispute it.

TONY JONES: Why not agree on a system where, for example, it was something in disputable like a secret ballot?

GREG COMBET: We’re quite open to a secret ballot being conducted and what we are proposing is that if there is some debate about that, then the Industrial Relations Commission should have the power to say, “Look, let’s resolve this by ordering a secret ballot.” We don’t have a problem with that. It’s a democratic principle that we’d like to see in the law.

TONY JONES: One of the fundamental differences obviously is that your union representatives would be able to go freely into workplaces and lobby non-unionists to join up to a collective bargaining agreement, is that right?

GREG COMBET: The union organisation involves talking to people and saying to them, “Would you like to join the union? This is what we can do, this is how we can represent you. Would you like to collectively bargain an agreement? We are prepared to represent you.” That’s the freedom of people to associate in a union and the rights to collectively bargain. These are internationally recognised human rights that Australian IR laws under John Howard are now in breach of. We’re in breach of internationally respected human rights in these situations and in relation to those rights. We say Australia is a signatory to these conventions and we should implement them in the law, and it should not be controversial.

TONY JONES: Can I ask why for 24 hours a consensus appears to have grown up amongst newspaper editorial writers, Heather Ridout’s column today, for example, from the Australian Industry Group says the same thing, the government is saying the same thing and the ALP doesn’t appear to be dissenting from it. They are all saying that if the union wants a system where a minority of workers in a workplace can dictate that there will be collective bargaining. How did this situation arise if you are saying it is simply not true?

GREG COMBET: The editorialists in the newspapers don’t ring me before they pen their editorial, I can assure you. They just write that rubbish no matter what. John Howard is not going to ring me and say, “Is this what you mean, Mr Combet?” They’ve had their spin doctors out no doubt in the Press Gallery in Canberra since I spoke at the Press Club yesterday, spinning this sort of line and it takes a little bit of a hold. It’s been quite amusing, actually because I’m still wondering how, if we don’t have the support of people in a workplace, how we can compel some employer to do something. And at of the day, either an employer can consent to a collective bargaining process or not. Most circumstances we think there would be consent. Even under John Howard’s laws there are still consent between an employer, employees and a union to collectively bargain. But where you have a contest where an employer refuses to collectively bargain, you need a circuit breaker in the law, and the circuit breaker we are proposing is that a majority view of the employees should be the thing that determines the issue.

TONY JONES: Well, a majority view is what the ALP has been saying. That’s exactly their position, as I understand it, from what Mr Beazley is saying. Why didn’t the ALP jump to your defence yesterday and say, “This is not what he is saying at all”?

GREG COMBET: You’d have to ask them. I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know that they’ve done anything to the contrary. I actually haven’t had time the last day or so to follow what’s been going in Question Time.

TONY JONES: Heather Ridout also asked in her column today what was wrong with the 1993 Keating model that gave all parties the right to pursue workplace agreements they wanted one?

GREG COMBET: This is fundamentally what we are proposing: that employers and unions and employees should be free to voluntarily pursue collective bargaining, and to do so and negotiate with each other in good faith. And again I come back to this: that one of the weaknesses, though, of the laws brought in in 1993 by the Keating government, which is a weakness that we take responsibility for in part, too, at the ACTU, is that we didn’t foresee that a culture would develop where companies would simply refuse to collectively bargain and insist on individual contracts. And that is the change in industrial culture we are trying to address. Under John Howard’s IR laws an employer can simply say “get lost,” even if you’ve got 100 per cent of my employees in the union, you can get lost, we are not negotiating with you and unless people sign this document they’re in a bit of strife in this workplace, they are not part of our show. That is an issue that contravenes internationally respected human rights and which must be resolved in any changes to the IR laws that a future government brings in.

TONY JONES: Let’s move on. Under your plans what would happen to the million or more people that, by the next election according to the Prime Minister, would be covered by individual workplace agreements?

GREG COMBET: We support those people having some effective transitional arrangement for their individual contracts, that they will expire at some point in a future time under the IR system. But we support the abolition and the commitment that Kim Beazley has made to get rid of John Howard’s individual contracts. and, look, can I say this to you: in over 20 years as a union official I have never had one employee come to me and say, “I want an individual contract.” Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there that would prefer an individual agreement. I respect that there are some. But, by and large, individual contracts are an instrument used by an employer to unilaterally dictate the terms and conditions of employment. It’s a take it or leave it proposition; and Australia is the only advanced country in the developed world now where an employer can say, “I don’t care if my employees want to collectively bargain, I don’t care if they all want to do it or a majority want to do it, you can get lost, I don’t care if they are all union members, I’m insisting on individual contracts.” We are the only country that does that.

TONY JONES: One argument is that in the mining sector and particularly in Western Australia where large numbers, in some sectors 95 per cent of workers are actually covered by individual contracts, that they want it that way. They want to keep it that way. You’re going to say to them, “You cannot keep that”, is that right?

GREG COMBET: I know Rio Tinto well and I know BHP Billiton well, I know the mining industry well; I’ve got a background in mining. I’ve been in disputes in the Pilbera region over the years and many in the mining industry. If Rio Tinto, for example, at Hammersley Iron, where most employees, about 90 per cent or more are on individual contracts, if the company is so confident that those workers love their individual contracts and that’s how they want their employment regulated, then they should not have a problem about our proposal because our proposal is if Rio Tinto doesn’t want to consensually negotiate a collective agreement, then the test will be – what do the majority of the employees want? If the employees love their individual contract, well the company should be quite satisfied. GREG COMBET: But you are going to ban individual contracts, aren’t you?

GREG COMBET: When I put these propositions to them they’re not quite so confident.

TONY JONES: But aren’t you going to ban individual contracts?

GREG COMBET: There have always been individual contracts, common law ones, a piece of paper: in fact about 30 per cent of the workforce are on such arrangements now. We’re not proposing to interfere with that.

TONY JONES: So only AWAs will be banned, contracts of other kinds, common law ones will be alright.

GREG COMBET: We want to get AWAs out of the system because they are used to destroy collective bargaining, deunionise workplaces, force people out of the union and to cut people’s pay and employment conditions. They breach the rights I referred to earlier, the right to bargain collectively, the right to freely associate in a union. We propose to get rid of them. We support Kim Beazley’s commitment for the reasons he’s outlined. However, there is nothing to stop, where people freely want to, an employee and an employer to enter into an individual contract on a common law basis that is over and above the safety net. There will be nothing to stop that, and the test again for Rio Tinto is are there employees, is that what they genuinely want, and we are prepared to put their genuine desire to the test. Is the company prepared to do it?

TONY JONES: So you’ll be going, effectively, into those mining companies and offering the employees the opportunity to have a vote as to whether they want to collectively bargain, as opposed to the individual contracts they are on. Is that what you are saying?

GREG COMBET: We’re not going to be barging in anywhere. Let’s get that square too. We don’t conduct ourselves in that way.

TONY JONES: How do you actually do it? How do you proceed when you have a company like Rio Tinto?

GREG COMBET: We have members there at the moment, some of whom are on individual contracts, some of whom are not. We obviously offer to people and we are saying they should have the right to representation, but we offered others the opportunity to become a union member, if that’s what they wish to do. We respect freedom of people to make that choice under our propositions. If people choose to do that and we say, well, look, are you interested in a collective bargaining negotiation, they say yes. We think “Gee, do you think most people are interested in that?” If we think so we could approach the company and say “How about it?” Rio Tinto might say, “Yeah, OK. Let’s do it.” Or they might say, “no, we don’t want to, and we think our employees love their individual contracts and don’t want a collective agreement.” And if we have got some confidence about the support for a collective bargaining negotiation we might say, “let’s put it to the test”.

TONY JONES: Put it to a vote?

GREG COMBET: Put it to a vote.

TONY JONES: Put it to a secret ballot?

GREG COMBET: It could be a secret ballot, yes.

TONY JONES: Is that what you’re saying?

GREG COMBET: Yeah it could be a secret ballot. We are not frightened about that.

TONY JONES: Let me ask you this because you’ve spent a long time and a lot of effort putting this the together: have you polled it?

GREG COMBET: We’ve done some research on these propositions.

TONY JONES: What’s it telling you?

GREG COMBET: That there’s a very high level of support for the proposition that if a majority of employees want a collective agreement in a workplace then the employer should be obliged to do it. And the levels of support for that proposition are in the order of 80 per cent amongst swinging voters in marginal seats; and I think it is something that we welcome debate about for that reason, aside from the fact it is good policy and it respects people’s rights. You’ve only got to see there’s a dispute in Canberra at the moment in the Defence Department. I met some of the workers yesterday. There is a contractor down there who is taking over a contract for some of the services for the Defence Department. They’re insisting on AWAs, 10 per cent pay cut and you’re going to lose your job unless you sign it. That’s the terms. That’s John Howard’s system. The thing that it takes from these workers, not only their living standards, but their dignity, and that’s the sort of thing that has to be changed when there is a change to these IR laws.

TONY JONES: I want to go back, just finally, you’ve polled this in marginal seats?

GREG COMBET: We have, yeah.

TONY JONES: You say 80 per cent support?


TONY JONES: Have you also polled the opposite? In other words, have you polled support for the Government’s position?

GREG COMBET: We do a lot of research on these issues and people do not like individual contracts and people increasingly are learning exactly what they are about. They’re not about employees freely exercising some choice. They’re about an employer monopoly on bargaining and that’s why business will resist our proposal because they want exclusive rights. They don’t want to have employees have a say. They don’t want unions to have a say. They want to have the only say and that’s the system that John Howard is supporting.

TONY JONES: Greg Combet, we’ll have to leave you there. Obviously a lot more to discuss, but we’ll have to come back to that at a future time. Thanks very much for joining us. GREG COMBET: Thank you.