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Parties to the Award

Federal industrial relations legislation

Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904

Industrial Relations Act 1988

Registered organisations

Amalgamation trends
Federation of trade unions
Central co-ordination
One Big Union
The push to 'super unions'

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The push to 'super unions'

Prior to the Australian Labor Party (ALP) securing federal office in 1983, various commissions and committees of inquiry had advocated a move to fewer unions in Australia, organised along industry lines.[65] In 1981 after calls by the federal coalition Government for enterprise-based unions were rejected, the Minister for Industrial Relations, Ian Viner, put forward a modified bill promoting structural change in trade union organisation along industry lines. In 1982 a Senate Select Committee on Industrial Relations Legislation was set up. The ACTU, in its submission to the Committee, said that whilst it was not opposed to industry-based unions it did not believe Mr Viner's proposal to be the appropriate method to achieve such changes. It stated that
to achieve genuine industry unions[66] it would be necessary to slice off sections of existing unions and to put them into new unions. Such actions would be strongly resisted by unions and their members and would be impossible to achieve without massive coercion[67]

Calls for change and for the union movement to move down the path of altering its craft and occupational-based structure met with little reaction. One reason for this inaction, pointed out by Howard Gill and Vivien Griffen, was that the unions were being treated 'as objects to be reformed as an adjunct to economic and industrial changes'.[68] They stressed that in order for anything substantial to happen the unions should be 'the source and not the object of reform'.[69]

The federal ALP election victory in March 1983 put the union movement into a strong position to be that source of reform. Prior to the election an agreement had been struck between the ACTU and the ALP regarding economic policy. In the agreement (commonly known as 'the Accord') the new Labor Government undertook, amongst other things, to conduct a total review of federal industrial legislation by establishing an inquiry into the Conciliation and Arbitration Act.[70] This inquiry took the form of the Committee of Review into Australian Industrial Relations Law and Systems (the Hancock Committee), set up in July 1983. The report of the committee, delivered in 1985, made a number of recommendations which focused on easing and promoting structural change in the union movement. It recommended that restrictive procedures for amalgamation (in place since 1972) be loosened, that no new craft or occupational based unions be allowed to register; and that the minimum number of members in a federally registered union be set at 1000.[71] In 1982 almost half of Australian trade unions had under 1000 members. These 152 unions represented only 1.6 per cent of total union membership.[72] Many of these, however, were not federally registered.

In 1987 the ACTU and the federal Government's Trade Development Commission sent a joint mission to Western Europe. The report of this visit was called Australia Reconstructed. The chapter headed 'Strategic Unionism', noted common features of Austria, West Germany, Norway and Sweden as being a small number of centrally co-ordinated (though locally organised), large industry-based unions. The report made a number of recommendations. One was that the Australian trade union movement, with the aim of strengthening its position and becoming more effective, should strive to have no more than 20 unions within two years. Recognising that complete transition to industry unionism might not be achievable, moves towards 'industry group unions' and 'large rational general unions' were foreseen. It was also suggested that industry coverage between unions should be rationalised, in order to provide a higher level of service.[73]

A document entitled Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement was adopted at the 1987 ACTU Congress. It stressed that Australian 'unions need to amalgamate in order to form larger more efficient units. The appropriate bases for each rationalisation appear to be broad industry categories'.[74] The document presented a draft program for amalgamation and listed 18 categories into which it was felt that most existing unions could fit:

  1. Textile, Clothing, Footwear
  2. Shipping and Stevedoring
  3. Rail and Tramway
  4. Road Transport
  5. Food and Transport
  6. Airline Industry
  7. Public Service Federation
  8. Education
  9. Post and Telecommunications
  10. Printing and Publishing
  11. Local Government and Services
  12. Large Union Amalgamation
  13. Australian Government
  14. Building Construction and Trade
  15. Retail and Clerical
  16. Banking and Insurance
  17. Health Industry
  18. Metal Industry - Vehicle Industry - Oil

The ACTU saw its responsibility as not only 'to assist unions in the process of amalgamation but also to promote amalgamation'.[75] The federal Government later showed itself to share the same commitment, with $450,000 set aside 'to promote industry-based amalgamation and remove any impediments which might otherwise slow the process down'.[76]

In 1988 the federal Government introduced measures which left many of Australia's smaller unions with the option of either amalgamation or deregistration. The Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 was replaced in its entirety by the Industrial Relations Act 1988. Following a recommendation of the Hancock Committee, the new Act raised the minimum membership requirement for a registered organisation from 100 to 1,000.[77] The screws were further tightened in February 1991 when an amendment to the Act put in place a two stage process which gave registered unions until February 1994 to meet new 10,000 membership minimum size criteria or face deregistration. This 10,000 membership minimum size criteria applied to all new applications by unions for registration from February 1991, unless special circumstances existed.

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