Tony Burke flags new union veto clause in wage bargaining bill

  • Published October 31, 2022

Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 2022

Unions will have veto power over multi-employer pay deals in a legal change foreshadowed by Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, even if bosses strike an agreement with workers without union involvement.

Consultations over the Secure Jobs, Better Pay reforms have been likened to “wrestling with smoke” by Australian Industry Group head Innes Willox, while Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry head Andrew McKellar described the bill tabled on Thursday as a Trojan horse for strikes.

Burke foreshadowed an amendment in his second reading speech on Thursday that would ensure workplace agreements “cannot be put to a vote of employees without the agreement of employee organisations who are bargaining representatives”.

Willox said during a press conference on Friday that this had “set off alarm bells across industries”.
“What it means is that it gives unions the veto right to stop a vote, even though the union may have a very minor role within the workplace ... it gives the union unfettered control essentially over what is put to the workforce,” Willox said.

McKellar said such an amendment “has got nothing to do with higher wages”: “It’s simply a power grab on behalf of the union movement.”

A Department of Education, Skills and Employment spokesperson said the minister was considering the amendment “to reflect ongoing consultation with stakeholders”.

“This potential amendment would safeguard against instances where an employer puts an agreement to the vote early in the bargaining process, which can undermine good faith bargaining and negatively impact outcomes for employees,” the spokesperson said.

“Employee organisations are an integral part of the existing bargaining system and will continue to be under the bill.”

The spokesperson said the amendments to multi-employer bargaining will require at least some employees to be represented by an employee organisation, but union involvement was not required for single-enterprise agreements.

Burke said on ABC the bill wouldn’t result in centralised wage fixing, “but agreement-making and bargaining where both workers and employers have some agency in being able to come to agreements”.

The heads of key business groups ramped up their attack over Labor’s handling of its industrial relations bill at a press conference in Canberra on Friday, arguing changes to multi-employer bargaining would expose the economy to widespread strikes and drag employers into agreements without consent.
In an apparent concession on Friday, Burke told ABC television the bill would be amended to make sure the voting process across workplaces using multi-employer bargaining would be fair and democratic.

“We want to make sure, for example, if you have an individual workplace where the employer doesn’t want to be part of a multi-agreement and the workforce don’t want to be part of an agreement that they don’t somehow get included in it,” Burke said.

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said that for multi-employer bargaining to be democratic, more than 50 per cent of employees at each site needed to agree.

“A larger employer who’s got, say, 5000 workers, is unionised, can be telling another employer in the same sector who’s got 50, 60, 70 people who are all happy: ‘You’re going to work to these conditions or take industrial action when we say so’. We think that is not democratic,” Westacott said.
Burke moved to hose down the outcry from businesses by saying discussions over the landmark legislation continued to be constructive behind closed doors.

But Willox said the consultation process “in earnest” hadn’t even begun.

“These negotiations or consultations with the government for many employer groups has been like wrestling with smoke. There have been no formal proposals put up until the very end,” he said, adding representatives had been hit with “hypotheticals but nothing firm” and some hadn’t even seen the legislation until it was tabled.

McKellar called for a “full and proper, open inquiry” into the legislation rather than a “ridiculous” three-week Senate inquiry.
“This bill is, to a large degree, a Trojan horse, a Trojan horse that is delivering a situation where there will be greater risk of industrial action where businesses and employees will lose control over the right to enter into agreements which they support.”

Union heads in the care sector applauded the expansion of multi-employer for lower paid, feminised workforces such as those in aged care and early learning, saying the conditions of their industries were naturally suited to bargaining across workplaces.

Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes said it had been in place informally in the aged care sector already. “You’ve got the same pressures, same employers, same workforces,” Hayes said, adding the industry needed a robust and consistent approach to lifting wages.

However, the Aged and Community Care Providers Association head Tom Symondson said the aged care peak body was concerned the compulsion of employers into bargaining they haven’t consented to “threatens to upend the traditional employer-worker relationship”.
The ACTU declined to comment.