Perhaps predictably, the dispute between Qantas and unions representing its workforce is heading to arbitration, as management has refused to bargain over job security claims. The TWU is also considering a further legal challenge.
Over the last couple of weeks, a pattern in management strategy has been emerging, as it’s become clearer that employers see arbitration as a potential way of circumventing bargaining and ongoing industrial action, and of defending “management prerogative” through resisting claims which would impact on the deployment of labour and, consequently, of cost-cutting and offshoring strategies.
The most prominent sign that there’s something of a concerted push at work is the action of the Victorian Government in taking the nurses to FWA, contextualised by a leaked cabinet paper which sugggests that its ultimate aim is to seek a termination of industrial action, followed by arbitration.
However, arbitration is not available only at the instance of employers. It’s important to note that the Australian Nursing Federation sought ‘consent arbitration’ last week – which had the Victorian Government agreed, would have allowed Fair Work Australia to arbitrate on issues such as nurse-patient rations.
Similarly, Jeff Lawrence of the ACTU has implied that unions would wish to see a broadening of the matters which can be subject to arbitration considered as part of the Gillard government’s review of the Fair Work Act.
Historically, arbitration has enjoyed support from many unions because industrial power alone, particularly where workers are female, low-waged and in a weak position to bargain, cannot secure wages and conditions which might be gained through an arbitral process. There’s a residue of this in the provisions for arbitration for low-waged workers in the Fair Work Act.
Over the last decade and a half, and arguably a little longer, bargaining rather than conciliation and arbitration have been favoured by most industrial parties. What’s interesting is that it’s now obviously becoming a locus for contestation again. The irony, here, is that the proponents of workplace deregulation have long argued against the ‘intrusion of third parties’ in industrial negotiations. Clearly, management self-interest is trumping ideology.
That’s something the Gillard government needs to take into account as it considers the future shape of the Fair Work Act.
NB: Previous discussion of the Qantas dispute can be found here.