If some employers had their way, union officers would be entirely banned from entering workplaces.
Fortunately in Australia, we have a law – the Fair Work Act – that places legal obligations on employers to provide limited access for union officials to meet with members in their workplaces. These rights are particularly important during negotiations over enterprise bargaining agreements, which set wages and workplace conditions for members. Such negotiations are now underway in many parts of the healthcare sector.
Recent changes to the Fair Work Act have raised concerns about whether union officers will continue to have the access they need to meet with members. The amendments to the law have been prompted in part by complaints from employers of excessive visits to workplaces by some union officials. Under changes to the so-called ‘right-of-entry’ provisions, the Gillard Government says the Fair Work Commission (formerly Fair Work Australia) will be given greater power to resolve disputes over the frequency of visits to workplaces by union officials.
The Government has also decreed that where an employer and union can’t agree on the location of a meeting between the union and members, the meeting should be held in a place where employees usually go during meal times and other breaks.
At face value, the changes concerning frequency of visits to workplaces by union officers might seem like a reasonable response by federal Workplace Minister Bill Shorten to what can often be a contentious issue.
But at the Health Services Union Victorian Branch 3, we have some concerns. Although your union has generally experienced cooperation from employers when seeking access to hospitals and other workplaces to meet with healthcare professionals, there have been a few recent cases of health sector employers adopting a more feisty approach.
Right-of-entry to workplaces for union officers has always been an area of debate. As Mr Shorten said in his recent announcement, the aim of a fair system should be to balance the needs of unions to meet with members in an appropriate location, and the need for employers to go about their business without undue interference. It is to be hoped that the latest changes do not embolden some employers to be more confrontational over this issue.
Mr Shorten has said the proposed changes will be subject to further consultation before he introduces legislation.