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10. Trade Unions and Employers Associations
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10. Trade Unions and Employers Associations

Brief Description of Employees’ and Employers’ Associations

Trade unions form the mainstay of employee representation in Australia. However, their influence and membership has significantly declined over the last two decades. With that said, under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) the unions enjoy a powerful role in relation to workplace bargaining even if their capacity to organise strikes has been diminished. The preeminent trade union body in Australia is the Australian Council of Trade Unions (“ACTU”), which represents the interests of many unions that have membership in the ACTU.

There are several other significant union bodies in Australia and unionism has long been an important issue in workplace law. Australia’s major political parties take a diametrically opposed approach to unions. The Labour party is seen as pro-union and is inclined to often legislate in favour of union influence, while the Liberal party regularly seek to undermine their role in the workplace.[1]

Recent proposed changes by the Coalition Government primarily concern a reduction in union influence — which is indicative of the ongoing struggle between unions and business in modern Australia. In 2017, the Coalition Government set up the Registered Organisations Commission to oversee union compliance with legislation applicable to them.

Firmly pitted against the union movement is an array of employer associations, such as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In the same way that unions have influenced Labour party policy, these bodies often play a prominent part in the formulation of Liberal party policy, and typically favour the interests of business over workers’ rights.[2]

[1] Jeff Borland, ‘Trade Unions in Australia’ (2008) Australian Economic Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 at p. 70.

[2] Ibid.

Rights and Importance of Trade Unions

A union is a body that represents the interests of workers in a particular industry or occupation. In order to be able to represent members in the Commission, conduct elections of officers through the Australian Electoral Commission, become a body corporate or a legal entity, all unions, employee or enterprise associations are required to register under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 (Cth).

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 (Cth) dictates that all federally registered organisations have rules, and that various matters that must be included in the rules, including but not limited to: the purpose or the organisation, membership eligibility, resignation and termination of membership, powers and duties of officers, keeping of minutes and auditing process, and the process for changing rules.

All employees and independent contractors are free to choose to join or not join a union. Under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), a union will engage in various key roles, including being able to resolve workplace issues on behalf of the employees and acting as a bargaining representative during bargaining negotiations for an enterprise agreement.

Other key features of unions include:

  • working with management to help resolve workplace issues;
  • being an advocate for employees;
  • ensuring employers are meeting their minimum obligations; and
  • looking into suspected breaches of:
    • workplace laws;
    • discrimination laws; and
    • workplace safety laws.

Number of Representatives

The number of elected officials and union delegates depends on the size of the union membership and industry.

Appointment of Representatives

Union officers and officials are elected democratically by their members. The union’s rules will specify how this is to be done. Delegates and representatives are usually active members who volunteer for the position or are approached by a branch member to consider taking on the role. To be considered, a delegate will often need to have the support and respect of their union colleagues in the workplace.

Other Types of Employee Representative Bodies

Unions form the primary source of employee representation in Australia. However, given their rapidly declining membership base, isolated but significant examples of alternative employee representation are emerging.

Suncorp Group, which employs over 16,000 individuals with only 4% union membership, is an exponent of a newer approach. Within the organisation is a body called Suncorp Group Employee Council, to which employees elect 25 councilors. These individuals then lobby management for employee rights issues. While its role is limited with regard to decision making within the Group, it has been effective in increasing employee voice and maintaining a more cooperative relationship between employees and management.

Australian medical manufacturer Cochlear has employed a similar model. After disagreements with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union over enterprise bargaining agreements, the primary form of representation for workers became the internal Employee Consultative Committee, which occupied a similar role to the Suncorp Group Employee Council. The body has had limited influence over management and has rather focused on social aspects of life at the company.

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