For those active in industrial relations there is quite a well-known book titled From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. The books’ thesis or focus was firstly to remind readers of the many struggles in the USA by trade unions to obtain and protect basic working conditions American workers, now take for granted, and secondly to reinforce the important and enduring relationship between unions and their members.
In Australia all employees are entitled to the protection of labour law and most enjoy benefits such as annual leave, parental leave, minimum wages, superannuation, days off, and the list goes on. However it is easy to forget that these universal benefits we all now expect and enjoy were not freely given. In many cases they were only achieved after long and bitter campaigns by unions, and importantly supported by employees who built union membership at their workplaces and pursued and achieved workplace improvements.
The relationship between unions and their members was raised recently by Professor Ron McCallum at a national conference on industrial law. Professor McCallum, widely regarded as the doyen of Australian labour law, has suggested trade unions, if they so choose, should be able to negotiate enterprise agreements that would only apply to members of the union. Not surprisingly these comments polarised the views of many.
Collective bargaining and award systems in Australia have for the most part applied consistently for an occupation, group of employers or across an industry. For example when the ANMF secures an agreement with an employer it typically covers all nursing staff of that employer whether they are members of the ANMF or not. In fact under the Fair Work Act it is illegal for trade union members to receive any benefit not available to a non-member.
This system differs from most comparable countries. For example in New Zealand collective agreements are made between trade unions and employers and the agreement can only provide wages and conditions for members of the union who are employed by the employer. Nonunion members may only negotiate individual contracts with their employer.
Similarly in parts of the USA and the EU collective bargaining is undertaken by unions on behalf of their financial members only.
Those supporting union member only agreements point out that trade union members pay union dues which contribute to the substantial campaigning and representation costs invariably associated with enterprise bargaining. Non-union members (often referred to as free riders) contribute nothing and receive the benefits secured by their union colleagues, and this is unfair. Further by being able to enjoy all the benefits of an enterprise agreement it is little wonder many employees choose not to join trade unions. Finally member only agreements would see an immediate and sustained increase in the number of people in unions, thereby reducing the costs for everyone.
Opponents argue that the labour movement has a broad responsibility to assist all workers, particularly those in casual and precarious employment who often do not belong to a union. Enterprise agreements that do not discriminate between trade union members and non-members strengthen the industrial minima and protect union members by preventing employers from employing non-union members at cheaper wage rates. Finally Australia’s non-discriminatory approach discourages “union busting” organisations who are established by groups of employers solely to disrupt the role and activities of trade unions, as is now commonplace in the UK, USA and elsewhere.
While there are sound arguments on both sides of the debate it is undeniable that trade unions exist to represent the collective interests of members in specific industries and occupations, and thankfully in nursing at least most employees still find that union membership is the best way of representing their industrial and workplace interests because they lack the knowledge and resources to represent themselves effectively.
While members of the ANMF receive many benefits beyond collective bargaining, your union along with most others, fights hard to introduce collective agreements at every workplace because they are the best and often only way of protecting basic employment conditions such as hours of work, penalty payments, workplace safety, workload tools and wages.
However with the declining levels of union membership in many industries, how long can financial members of trade unions be expected to carry those who don’t pay?
As Professor McCallum maintained “the primary reason for the establishment of trade unions is to obtain improved wages and better conditions of employment for trade union members”.
If one accepts all nursing employees’, members and non-members as well as the profession more generally, benefits from the commitment and active involvement of members of the ANMF, perhaps the real question is: is it fair to continue to ask financial members to subsidise others who choose not to contribute?