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Published 05 September 2012 15:33, Updated 05 September 2012 15:34
Striking workers and police at the Myer site in Melbourne. Photo: Justin McManus
The public relations war over an industrial dispute at the Myer Emporium site in Melbourne shows the perilous position of unions today, with membership and influence both in decline.
On one side, there are union claims that the developer, Grocon, had used a Hell’s Angels bikie to pressure workers during a previous dispute. Grocon has denied the claims.
Grocon chief executive Daniel Grollo says he has received death threats over the Myer site dispute.
Grocon has now paid to run an unsigned letter – purportedly by a group of employees – as an advertisement in The Australian Financial Review. The letter says they want to return to work without being harassed by the people manning the two-week blockade of the Myer site.
Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney, Russell Lansbury, has been studying the Australian industrial relations landscape for decades and says it is a complex situation, where some unions feel they need to prove their value to their members, leading the charge into strike action.
But in other cases, such as the Toyota dispute earlier this year, the union and shop stewards counsel against strikes, but are pushed into it by their members, who are angry with their employer.
“In this case, members twice voted against union recommendations that they go back to work,” says Lansbury. “It seemed to me the workers were both against the employer and their union.
“It is often said the unions are often the managers of discontent – they don’t foment it.
“In reality, we have a small number of strikes in Australia. There are a few that go on for a while and blow out the statistics, but the actual number of strikes is extremely low.”
He says he has also seen cases where employers ramp up hostilities with the unions in order to achieve other ends, removing industrial relations staff and human resources people who are seen as too conciliatory and co-operative.
Lansbury says unions now have far more restrictions on when they can call a strike. “It is very difficult, as I have found. Unions are often between a rock and a hard place. There is often little they can do except try to reason with employers . . . to try and get a deal for their members without pushing the employers too hard, to the point where the workers start losing their jobs.”
One union leader recently said to Lansbury: “If we go out on strike, we have failed. It is very easy to get people to go out on strike, it is hard to get them to come back.”
While union membership is slipping away in most cases, there is still a future for collective action for those industries where there is a strong sense of identification with the role, and the people are hard to replace. For unions, it will be the jobs that require apprenticeships and qualifications that cannot be obtained in a hurry.
Outside of the union movement, professional groups such as the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Federation of Air Pilots act as quasi unions.
Lansbury looks to European works councils as a possible way of the future for Australia. In Germany, for instance, any company with more than 50 employees must, by law, form a works council with employees to advise the company on personnel, conditions and changes to company structure.
These councils can veto hiring choices, relocation of workers, dismissals, allocation of working hours, and certain salary issues, as well as economic matters affecting the company such as partial closure, amalgamation and relocation.
This set-up has nothing to do with unionism. Many companies have no union members on their works councils. In Germany, 25 per cent of workers belong to a union, compared with 18 per cent in Australia (12-13 per cent in the private sector).
On a visit to Australia last year, the chief executive of German office and art supplies company Faber-Castell, Count Anton Wolfgang Graf von Faber-Castell, said: “Works councils are such a good idea, that if they did not already exist, we would have to have invented them.”
Lansbury says many companies no longer have the tolerance for disputes with workers and are reaching out directly to their employees, to try to establish an atmosphere of mutual trust and communication.
The letter from Grocon employees hints at that sort of relationship, where the workers say they have no dispute with their employer and just want to go back to work. At the same time, the economy is tough and few people can afford to do without a week’s salary when there are families to feed and housing costs to meet.