Brief Description of Employees’ and Employers’ Associations
Trade unions form the mainstay of employee representation in Australia. However, there is no doubt that their influence and membership has significantly declined over the last two decades. With that said, 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.
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 Labor 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.
Rights and Importance of Trade Unions
Unions currently play a crucial role in Australian employment law. This primarily manifests in the process of enterprise bargaining where an employer will come together with its employees and their chosen union in order to negotiate conditions of employment specific to their company or industry.
Unions also have the capacity to apply to the FWC to undertake strike action in relation to a grievance at the workplace. Unions may not, however, organise and initiate strike action without first following the appropriate procedure set out in the industrial legislation. Unions also have right of entry into workplaces where they have members and may use this privilege to examine working conditions and consult with members.
Employees’ Representation in Management
There is no legal requirement for employee representation at any level of management. However, if an organisation wishes to negotiate an agreement with its employees, it must inform employees of their right to be represented by the union.
Other Types of Employee Representative Bodies
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 with 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. Nonetheless, similarly, the body has had limited influence over management, and has rather focused on social aspects of life at the company.