New deal, new hope

Union membership here to stay

Tania Bawden

Despite record low membership, unions will always have a role in the workplace, Employee Ombudsman Stephen Brennan says.

Unions are reinventing themselves to respond to changing workplace practices and worker needs, he says, and will collectively still represent the largest group of people in Australia.

However, the former state secretary of the clothing trades union is filling a role in State Government in a different – and still evolving – worker-advocacy role.

"We have got WorkChoices for the next six to 12 months, but we are moving towards a more centralised system (under the Rudd Labor Government)," he says.

"Working under a more co-operative arrangement between state and federal jurisdictions will be very beneficial to workers and employers.

"If Labor takes six months or longer to formulate a new IR policy, it may avoid some of the problems the previous government was caught with."

Under the revised industrial relations laws promised by the Labor Government, Mr Brennan says his office will be able to refocus on widening its coverage of workers under state and federal awards.

"We will try to structure ourselves to be of assistance to employees and employers in a more simplified IR framework and take medium to long-term plans on education programs," he says.

A recent wide-ranging review of Work Choices by the SA Industrial Relations Commission supports the expanded role of the Employee Ombudsman’s office in promoting employee and employer responsibilities.

"The expected creation of a single IR system will ease confusion about the boundaries between state and federal awards and require some rejigging of the role of the office," Mr Brennan says.

The Office of the Employee Ombudsman, created 12 years ago under a Liberal Government, helps to monitor compliance with the Fair Work Act, including occupational health and safety matters.

Last year, it received thousands of inquiries about pay and conditions with the widespread use of Australian Workplace Agreements.

Mr Brennan is looking forward to the introduction of a more "user-friendly process that is clear and easy to operate in, with defined boundaries of what is and is not allowable – without incurring $33,000 fines for errors". The introduction of five minimum conditions for AWAs, the removal of unfair dismissal laws and subsequent "patch-up" action to WorkChoices, such as the Fairness Test, was all an "unmitigated disaster", he says.

"It was the most radical overhaul of the system since federation, since the creation of the IR system itself," Mr Brennan says.

"The framework should be more workable and more simplistic than the one we are working with. Transition from the old to the new will take time and transition periods are difficult."

Mr Brennan spent 16 years with the Textile Clothing Footwear Union and became secretary at the age of 24. He fought for workers battling cheap imports. The "offshoring" of Australian jobs and gradual liberalisation of employment arrangements have undermined and eroded union membership, he says.

He believes many factors have quickened the "process of unions refocusing their structures, as they have been for the past 10-15 years".

"Unions are the members and not the officials," he says. "There will always be a place for unions to represent workers, particularly young, migrants and disadvantaged workers."

Mr Brennan also supports the role of employer organisations, "which are, in a sense, unions, too".

"Employee union membership won’t get back to 50 per cent, but it will remain the biggest lobby group in Australia – larger than any other lobby group or political party in Australia," he says.

Creating clearer lines between work and family-social life is an important area in which unions can lobby.

"Unions are reinventing themselves to become relevant to the changing needs of workers," he says.

"As to the future of this office, it will be interesting to see where its role develops, with the WorkChoices inquiry by the SA Industrial Relations Commission recommending the office expand the role as well as cover all employees under all awards.

"It is more holistic to become a more complete ombudsman role for everybody. Also, we must expand more into the employers’ sphere to help them understand the system."

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