The 2015 Ron McCallum debate focused on freedom of association and the role of unions and employer organisations in the workplace relations system, our society and politics.

The Australian Institute of Employment Rights’ fifth debate in the Justice at Work series was a great success. The audience of around 160 people appreciated a robust and at times controversial discussion.

The debate was chaired by Emeritus Professor Russell Lansbury and included the following speakers:

  • Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum
  • Michele O’Neil, TCFUA
  • Stephen Smith, AiG
  • Keelia Fitzpatrick, Young Workers Centre
  • Michael Harmer, Harmers Workplace Lawyers

The panel provided different perspectives on this fundamental right offering a number of new proposals for consideration.

Audio of the whole debate is able to be downloaded at the link below.

Professor McCallum proposed allowing for member-only union collective agreements, arguing this was one way to reinvigorate the union movement. He argued that:

“federal labour law should be amended to enable trade unions to fully represent their members by entering into members only collective agreements with employers. In my view, this would not simply revitalise the trade union movement, but it would enable members to obtain full representation of their interests. A by-product would be that this extra element of choice would free up the labour market where the requirements for collective agreements are tightly constrained.”

Ron’s full comments can be read here.

Michele O’Neil reflected on the changing nature of work and its increasing fragmentation and argued for creating a “new collective”. She noted that freedom of association and the right to organise are at the core of what unions do everyday. The whole point of unions is to harness collective power. Michele spoke about the experience of her unions’s members in dealing with the global supply chain which she pointed to as a threat to freedom of association. Michele also commented on the threat to freedom of association implicit in the recommendation from the Productivity Commission for enterprise contracts which essentially would relieve employers of any obligation to deal with their workers collectively. She also offered some solutions, notably, removing the restrictions on bargaining at an enterprise level, portability of union membership and expanded right of entry.

Stephen Smith reflected on three threats he saw to freedom of association:

  1. The very substantial and inappropriate revenue flows to unions from insurance companies which offer substandard and grossly overpriced income protection insurance products;
  2. The distribution of surpluses in industry redundancy funds; and
  3. Union encouragement clauses in enterprise agreements..

Stephen’s full remarks can be read here.

Keelia Fitzpatrick noted the tendency to “cherry-pick” rights arguing that “cherry-picking is a habit that many politicians, academics and others have in treating ‘rights’ which require collective enforcement to be realised as rights that need to be modernised.” She went on to argue for the importance of recognising procedural labour rights if freedom of association was to be protected. Applying this analysis to Australia, Keelia argued that governments have treated freedom of association as a non-core right with the consequence that “entire industries and groups of workers are denied the employment derivative rights that procedural labour rights act as the custodian for.” Keelia’s speaking notes can be read here.

Michael Harmer reflected on the need for a principles-based approach and posed the question whether the union movement was currently fit for purpose. He noted that in a world of global change we need principled leadership. Freedom of association was concerned with dignity and respect for workers and employers. He noted that every conservative government has launched a Royal Commission in to the trade union movement. Michael also questioned the utility of industrial action and argued for a return to arbitration.

Like previous years, the AIER produced a substantial discussion paper for the debate that provides a comprehensive overview of the key issues.

Listen to a recording of the whole debate. It is a large file but well worth a listen.