The purpose of this paper is to examine the issue of employer militancy in Australian workforce after the 1980s. The essay is divided into three parts, with more emphasis on the latter two parts - the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of employer militancy. In the first part, a generic definition of employer militancy will be provided, followed by the key features of the hostile approach adopted by employers towards unions. Then the second part is looking at expanding from the first point, briefly summarise the cooperative approach used by employers towards unionism from the period of 1940s to 1980s. After that, a longer portion of the essay will be devoted to case studies that illustrate trends which show how employers have ‘bullied’ unions. Lastly, this paper will discuss why these militant behavours were taken by employers, considering influential factors such as the macroeconomics environment, politics and legal frameworks. Moreover, evidence will support the argument that the decline in trade union coverage as both the outcome and reason of this gradual change in approach – “employer militancy”. But what exactly is employer militancy?
Since the 1980s, intuitive Australian employers are increasingly hostile towards trade unions over their excess involvement in arbitration and dispute matters, creating the phenomenon of employer militancy. Alexander et al. (2008:97) define employer militancy as ‘willingness of employers to use legal action to secure punitive damages against a trade union’. It is an aggressive anti-union approach, in which employers actively seeking ways to marginalise trade unions, with the help of their employer organisation. There are several main features of a militant employer, behavours such as offensive lockout (Briggs, 2004:110) aims to reduce the bargaining power of the unions. They deliberately not letting the employees to return to work until unions have agreed to their conditions to lower or remove bargaining claims. Another tactic used by militant employer is individual contract which also undermines the power of unions. Bray and Waring (2006:56-57) state that employers have been using AWAs to extend managerial prerogative and influence union behaviours. Individual contract can offer better pay than the minimum wages set by awards, thus it motivates employees to work harder. Although it seems now that union exclusions and de-unionisation practices are more common, employers haven’t always been aggressive towards union movement in the past.
In the period from the 1940s to the 1980s, Australian employers were relatively cooperative towards unions for several reasons. Firstly, there was compulsory arbitration in the industrial relations system, where awards are legally bound to regulate workplace as a whole. Bray and Waring (2006:48) explain that ‘awards gave unions the power to arbitrate between employers and employees, and joint decision-making takes place in resolving disputes’. It was necessary for employers to deal with unions in an accommodating manner, because they had an equal amount of authority in determining the workplace regulations. Secondly, because compulsory arbitration had not been able to maintain industrial peace, strikes had become more frequent in the late 60s to early 70s, notes Laffer (1972:45). Employers couldn’t afford the increasing number of working days lost due to the strikes, therefore they ‘keep these standards continually in mind and contrive not to depart too far from them’ (Laffer 1972:45). In other words, the arbitration system gave unions recognition and influence over employers in the forms of strikes, so when employers deviate from the minimum standard in awards, unions encourage workers to strike and employers suffer economic loss as a result. Therefore, employers have been brewing hostility towards unions for decades, with a number of innovative companies creating a shift in strategy since the late 1980s.
CRA (Rio Tinto) led the...