Sally McManus
ACTU secretary Sally McManus hasn't complained presumably because JobKeeper has put cash into Australians' hands (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Scott Morrison’s vision for an economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19 relies on a coming together of unions and employers in Accord-style working groups.

But Crikey has been speaking to union figures over the past week in anticipation of the government’s industrial relations agenda and they remain sceptical about which path the government and business groups will take.

The push for national unity presents both opportunity and risk for the trade union movement. While it gives unions a seat at the table, it could backfire if it’s not genuine. 

Morrison has urged all groups to “put their weapons down” and avoid the “tribalism, conflict and ideological posturing” of the past.

For unions, the stakes could not be higher as they face a reckoning over their future and how they adapt to a radically transformed workforce — and economy — due to COVID-19.

Genuine negotiation or hostage situation?

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has welcomed the opportunity to participate in working groups. But analysts say the chummy relationship between union leaders and the government may not last. 

“There’s no benefit for unions (or anyone else) in being involved in policy discussions if the outcomes are preordained,” Griffith University employment relations professor David Peetz said. “It’s only if there are genuine negotiations that it’s worth being involved.”

Morrison said the process, which would see five working groups set up to agree on key areas of IR reform, was not an attempt to neuter the trade union movement. In a show of good faith, he has also agreed to drop the government’s union-busting Ensuring Integrity Bill.

But that also creates a hostage situation, Peetz said, if it comes with the expectation of something in return: “That’s not really giving someone a seat at the table, and it’s hard to see what would be in it for unions, not least because they wouldn’t be able to persuade members that they were fighting for them if they caved in to such a threat.”

Labor has already attacked the plan, saying the thought of a Liberal government engaging over industrial relations would send a “chill down the spine of every Australian worker”. 

A question of trust 

Unions would need to be able to trust the government that negotiations were genuine. And trust that employer groups would come to the table in good faith, too, Peetz said. 

“That would mean some of the items on the unions’ wish list being also put on the table — things like changing the rules regarding the processes for approving and cancelling enterprise agreements, and the types of enterprise agreements that can be passed,” Peetz said. “It’s hard to see the government agreeing to consider those things when it had previously fought so hard to oppose them.”

ACTU secretary Sally McManus told Crikey the unions were pushing for the government to turn over a new leaf.  

“It would be extremely disappointing if the Morrison government returned to its old political agenda once this pandemic has passed,” she said.

Innovate or stay the same

Morrison’s announcement comes amid a bout of soul-searching within the unions about the best way to respond to the crisis. On the one hand they’ve seen a boost to dwindling memberships as workers remember what unions are for — fighting for fair and safe working conditions.

This has been spurred on by revelations that unfair dismissal claims have increased by 70% during the COVID-19 crisis and a union poll shows less than 10% of workers have basic COVID protections at work.

But unions are also grappling with a re-energised business lobby and a question about to what extent they should seek common ground with employers. 

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said there was a growing push for common ground by both workers and employers. 

“As we’ve seen, it’s a collaborative approach that delivers good jobs, and delivers good outcomes,” he said.

“You talk to many businesses who just opt out of the [business lobby] rhetoric and go their own way. They’re pragmatic. The businesses working with their workers and communities — they are the ones who are going to survive.”

What does the future look like for unions? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.