Industrial Relations is back in the headlines. The Fair Work Act has given unions a much more prominent role in the workplace, and has set in place a framework that’s politically likely to last at least 5 – 10 years. The Fair Work Act has effectively removed the option of direct employer-employee arrangements. The headlines have been about the legislation, award modernisation, and the growth in the role and militancy of unions.
The focus on workplace regulation is understandable, but misses the point. The Fair Work Act sets the legal framework. But whether employees are employed on an individual contract, an AWA or a collective union agreement is much less important than the culture and environment that the leadership creates.
The mining and resource sector led significant workplace reforms in Australia in the 1990s, resulting in substantial improvements in productivity, safety and business performance. It is possible to develop strategies to achieve business improvement within a unionised workplace.
Employees are most likely to be engaged, and contributing to their capability, when they trust the leadership and believe they will be treated fairly. This needs leaders to focus on three key areas, that are absolutely within their control, to drive safety, flexibility, change and business performance:
- the way the business is organised to do its work (structure)
- the way it gets work done (systems)
- the behaviour of its leaders and the quality of their judgments.