Within eight days of each other Bill Shorten and ACTU head, Sally McManus, have called for changes to the enterprise bargaining regime which is a central feature of Labor’s own Fair Work Act. Whilst we will no doubt hear more on this these statements would be chilling to many an employer who regards the current system as stacked against them.
To be fair, finding the right balance in a system which directly effects wage outcomes is difficult. But Labor’s legislation cemented collective bargaining as a central platform for agreement making and did away with a statutory regime to make individual agreements. In doing so unions were given the best legislative platform to date to compel employers to bargain – even with a union that has a minority membership interest in the business.
Mr Shorten cites low wage growth to make the case for change amidst greater productivity. The wages-work bargain is unfair it seems. Conversely employers will tell you that the “productivity lemon” has been well and truly squeezed from enterprise bargaining with little or no incentive for unions to countenance genuine trade-offs. In its inception back in the 1990s, enterprise bargaining presented an opportunity – to move away from inflexible centrally set terms and conditions to outcomes which better reflect the needs of the enterprise. It paved the potential for “win-win” outcomes. But no more. If macro data points to increased labour productivity, the nexus between this and collective bargaining will be very tenuous.
To this extent there is universal acceptance of a system unable to meet the needs of the workplace today and certainly not the future. If no agreement is reached, the status quo typically remains. In negotiations, speak the “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Outcome” for a union and employees is the status quo being the existing enterprise agreement. Very often, the genesis of these agreements were struck when the business was in a very different place – many years ago and when current competitive conditions were beyond contemplation.
Enterprise bargaining, once an opportunity is now an exercise in managing risk. This involves stemming the tide of increasing labour costs and avoiding claims which, for instance, prevent outsourcing or mandate third party involvement in legitimate business decisions. But there’s more. The system relies on a game of leverage. Unions can organise industrial action to effectively coerce employers to agree. Employers can lock employees out in response. Neither are very constructive in the long run. Ms McManus is calling for greater ease to take industrial action and tighter controls on employer lock outs. Mr Shorten wants to shut down the Fair Work Commission’s (limited) ability to terminate old enterprise agreements – which provides employers with a precious opportunity to remove outdated and restrictive clauses albeit not without a contested hearing process usually over some months.
So, inherent in the thinking of both Labor and the ACTU is a re-setting of the legislative levers of leverage which drive bargaining outcomes. For employers more of the same but worse. Employers will make agreements palatable in the short term only because the short term cost of the bargaining process (industrial action) is too high. Rational economic outcomes are thus easily distorted. Of course in the medium-long term the cost of making an agreement becomes intolerable. Restructuring, outsourcing, and offshoring become part of an inevitable ‘solution’ for employers.