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    The Prime Minister has targeted Industrial Relations reform as the Government’s priority this term. He sees opportunity to pass the many Coalition IR bills that have been stalled in the Senate for years. Although the PM is counselling a cautious approach, the Union Movement is clearly girding for the battle which they see as ideological. This view is apparently supported by ex deputy president of the Industrial Relations Commission Justice Kirby, who has warned against radical changes to workplace laws by “industrial ayatollahs”.

    In simple terms, The Government states that a less centralised and rigid IR system will result in greater productivity and wages growth for all, while increasing employment opportunities. The Union Movement argues that the Government’s legislation is designed to deliberately disadvantage employees in favour of employers. They have declared to fight the Government with all means at their disposal and the more militant leaders are talking in terms of a “war”.

    IR Wars are not a recent phenomenon. Their genesis was at the beginning of British settlement when convicts were subjugated by the officers and soldiers of the second-rate units sent out to guard them. The military personnel quickly became bureaucrats and landowners, while most of the convicts, although eventually free men and women, became the forerunners of today’s workers. Thus the subordinate worker versus privileged boss adversarial dichotomy was established.

    Relationships quickly deteriorated and the blame can be laid mainly at the feet of the bosses. The majority exploited the workers and cared little for their welfare, while having the authority, resources and the opportunity to do otherwise. The workers’ response was to build strength in unity and so the Union Movement was born. Unfortunately, some of the conflicting attitudes and perceptions that arose still persist and the responsibility for this continuing state of affairs lies with both parties. Many bosses still see their staff as just another resource to be managed and have no idea about how to lead them to acceptable levels of increased capability and productivity. On the other hand, many union officials appear to be determined to defend their power base irrespective of the effect of their actions on organisational productivity, or indeed the creation of more work opportunities for the unemployed.

    It will be interesting to see how far the Government goes in changing IR legislation, in particular in the areas of unfair dismissal laws, Australian Workplace Agreements and the scope and powers of the Industrial Relations Commission. Hopefully the changes will be well considered and fair and will be accepted as reasonable by both bosses and unions. If they are not, the Union Movement will be motivated to continue the war and the bosses will continue to be seen as Kirby’s industrial ayatollahs. Whatever the outcome, as at the start of the adversarial boss versus worker relationship, the initiative will lay with the bosses. If they use the changes to increase their demands on workers and treat them inflexibly and unfairly, the union movement will benefit from membership growth and concomitant increased power, and the war will continue. If however, rather than just manage people as they would other resources, they learn to lead fairly, firmly and creatively and build the environment in their organisations in which they and their staff can be successful in achieving their common goals, then bosses, workers and the nation will benefit immensely. While full industrial peace and harmony might be too much to expect, a truce in which a reasonable balance is established between the competing vested interests might just be possible.

    Peter McDougall November 2004