Has the Development of Human Resource Management Practices Replaced the Need for Trade Unions? Discuss.

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Trade unions have been a central part of the Australian workplace. The workplace however has changed over the past two decades and it is possible that the role of trade unions within the workplace has been replaced by the introduction of Human Resource Management (HRM) practices. As stated by Leigh, 2005 “from 1914 until 1980, at least two in five workers were members of a union” and unionism was therefore for the most part the dominant approach, in terms of employment relations. However current membership is at around 20 per cent and coinciding with this decline in trade union membership is the increase in the step away from collectivism to individualism and the use of strategic HRM practices in response to the shift from a manufacturing industry towards a more service orientated industry.

By discussing and evaluating the roles and various aspects of trade unions and HRM practices in the Australian workplace this essay will draw on the conclusion whether HRM practices have replaced trade unions in the workplace.

A trade union, according to Balnave et al, 2009, can be defined as ‘an organisation set up by employees to assist them in the workplace through collective organisation’. Prior to the 1980’s, trade unions have traditionally been dominant, due in large part the nature of the manufacturing industry which consisted mainly of blue collar workers. By providing a collective voice for these workers, unions along with the government have played an important role in developing the framework for the Australian workplace. A trade union’s main role is to meet its member’s employment needs and protect their conditions of employment (Deery et al, 2000).

Trade unions have assisted in the negotiation process of employment conditions and award wage rates in Australia through collective bargaining, which are now nationally legislated and are aimed to protect and address the interests of the employee. In addition, between 1983-96 the governing body of trade unions, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the federal Australian Labor Party participated in the Accord - an agreement between the two parties that “sought increases in wages and conditions in exchange for commitments on workplace restructuring and no extra claims against employers” (Balnave et al, 2009). The Accord contained many employment related provisions, which included: superannuation, the introduction of Medicare as well as OH&S legislations.

Furthermore, trade unions have an institutionalised role under the traditional system of conciliation and arbitration to be responsible for dispute resolution via industrial relations tribunals. Trade unions also act as lobby groups to influence the government and any associated parties on the decision they make (Balnave et al, 2009). Examples of recent lobbying powers of trade unions include the introduction of maternity leave and more recently the ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign, a reply to the Liberal party’s ‘WorkChoices’ campaign. The ACTU backed ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign was influential in the success of the Labor Party in the last federal election (Balnave et al, 2009).

However, declining trade union density and membership in the past two decades has decreased their impact in terms of employment relations. In addition, the shift towards a service orientated industry - a traditionally non-unionised industry, consisting of white collar workers, as well as changes in workplaces, which included a fall in fulltime employment, push towards greater flexibility and labour hire had seen the rise of HRM practices (Mortimer and Leece, 2002). This concept of individualism, illustrated by the Howard government’s roll out of Australian Workplace Agreement (AWAs) meant workers were comfortable dealing with employers directly to settle on remuneration packages and working conditions, as oppose to collectively through a trade union.

Balnave et al, 2009 defines HRM as “a unitarist approach that emphasises...
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