Feds dismiss ‘breathless hysteria’ over changes to employer bargaining rules

The federal government has dismissed suggestions that any move to expand access to multi-employer bargaining will lead to more strikes and business closures across the country, calling the critics ‘breathless hysteria’ .

Unions have demanded the power to negotiate wages and working conditions between multiple employers in the same industry at once, insisting it will lead to better outcomes for workers – especially in smaller companies, where they don’t do not have the weight of negotiations in large companies.

Labor committed to the idea at their jobs and skills summit in Canberra last week, arguing that the current industrial relations framework was already exacerbating sluggish wage growth.

The exact nature of any legislative changes remains unclear, with the government pledging to continue discussions with unions and business groups on the matter.

The Coalition seized on concerns that it could allow workers from different employers to strike together, saying it would crush small businesses.

Skills Minister Brendan O’Connor rejected that argument and said strikes were becoming less frequent.

“The decline in disputes globally is happening in every country, whether they have sectoral or multi-employer bargaining,” he told ABC’s Insiders.

“The breathless hysteria about the massive row that is happening because we are using a new vehicle to negotiate is not borne out by the facts.”

Mr O’Connor was asked whether the right to strike would be included in legislation, responding that the government would consider all issues as part of its deliberations.

“We’ve seen collective bargaining halve in a decade, and that’s led to the slowest wage growth in any decade in living memory,” he said.

“Legislation we enacted during our last term in government provided a mechanism for low-wage bargaining between employers, but frankly it didn’t work.

“We have to try something better and more effective.”

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Expert says corporate bargaining hasn’t served workers

The federal opposition remains skeptical.

“Let me be very, very clear – Peter Dutton and the Coalition, we will fight this every step of the way if necessary,” Shadow Jobs Minister Michaelia Cash told Sky News.

“The Fair Work Act allows multi-employer bargaining, but that’s it – you don’t go on strike.

“So the only change in the law may be to empower the unions and allow the strike to be legal.”

The coalition accuses the government of trying to influence the referee

The opposition has accused the government of trying to sway the independent jobs adjudicator, after he warned of plans to curb employers’ power to scrap company agreements.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke sent a letter to the Fair Work Commission last week signaling plans to publish new legislation limiting employers’ power to override workplace wage agreements .

The move has angered the New South Wales government, which is threatening to tear up its own deal covering railway workers in the state amid an ongoing strike.

“For a government minister to write to the Independent Fair Work Commission and seek to influence them in the way they make decisions – that should be of deep concern to all Australians,” said Senator Cash.

“The role of a court, the role of a court is to interpret the law as it is, not as Mr. Burke and Mr. Albanese would like it to be.”

Mr O’Connor said his colleague had already raised the issue and suggested the timing of the letter was coincidental.

“The Fair Work Commission is independent, and the chair and commissioners will work in accordance with the Fair Work Act,” O’Connor said.

“The government, I think as protocol, was just prefiguring our intent.”

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