Minerals lobby calls for more competition for unions

The Minerals Council of Australia has launched a broadside attack against unions with a new policy paper which suggests their role in EBA negotiations should be reduced.

The new paper ‘Australia’s workplace relations framework: Institutional considerations’ proposes that union members should be able to use alternative service providers for collective bargaining.

The MCA claimed the proportion of workers covered by union-negotiated agreements has increased despite declining union membership, with 75 per cent in 2009 compared with 86 per cent in 2012.

“It is estimated that trade unions negotiate for almost with some 400,000 more people than belong to unions,” the report said, although no indication of the unions involved, or the number of union members covered by the same agreements.

The paper by Castalia Strategic Advisors cited the “instructive” example set by New Zealand in the early 90s, when “removal of entrenched union powers led to a market-shakeout that ultimately benefited both workers and some trade unions”.

MCA deputy chief executive John Kunkel said a key feature of Australian labour market arrangements was that they empowered “union insiders” through the right to act as a bargaining agent, the right to negotiate an award and the right to govern default superannuation funds.

Kunkel also suggested that Enterprise Bargaining Agreements have not yielded better earning for workers than individual agreements, and that pay rises were similar for union members and non-members alike.

“The paper notes that while workers are free to opt out of union membership, this does not necessarily provide an opt-out from union coverage,” Kunkel said.

CFMEU national secretary Andrew Vickers responded to the policy paper this morning with the view that the arguments were “almost identical to the nonsensical debate about retail superannuation funds as opposed to industry super funds”.

“It’s a stupid proposition,” Vickers said.

“The MCA, representing the biggest end of town, says workers should be able to go out and hire consultants at exorbitant fees: Do you think these people are going to do it for what union members pay in union dues?

“It’s a ludicrous, ideological obsession from the MCA, and none of it surprises me.”

Vickers described the shift of power from unions in New Zealand as a disastrous social and political experiment” which has been followed by a comeback in union membership.

“We have contacts with sister unions in New Zealand… that whole 1990s experiment was a disaster for workers,” he said.

“It was very good for bosses, and I’m not surprised that the MCA would say that was a great thing and we ought to repeat it over here.

The report contained “terrible, inappropriate assumptions”, according to Vickers, especially in terms of the comparison between the values of individual contracts and collective agreement arrangements in the mining industry.

“I’m not sure if the authors of the report know, but I know that the bulk of people who were covered by individual contracts, at least in the coal mining industry, are senior professionals and managers who are on significantly higher salaries and benefits than blue collar workers,” he said.

“Having said that, the margin in average weekly earnings is quite small when you take everybody as a group, which is straight out of their chart.

“That’s a glaring anomaly: It’s a comparison, as they said in the old days, between apples and oranges.

“It makes a nonsense of the whole thesis upon which the report is based, and the MCA’s love affair with that.”

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