Industrial relations in Australia has undergone tumultuous changes since 2005, commencing with the Family Provisions test case decision which granted federal award-covered employees a range of important new family-friendly provisions, centring on unpaid parental leave. This was followed by Work Choices which largely prevented access to the new entitlements and then the Fair Work Act 2009, which improved family friendly entitlements by legislative change. Both these statutes impacted on how unions could engage in collective bargaining for family provisions.
This thesis answers several research questions arising from these developments which are of critical importance to industrial relations practitioners, policy makers and researchers: Would selected Australian unions negotiate for family provisions in a changing industrial relations and social policy environment? If so, does this constitute ‘equality bargaining’? What are the facilitative or inhibitive factors which impact on the equality bargaining processes and outcomes?
The theory and concept of equality bargaining, applied and developed in the EU, UK and Canada by key authors such as Dickens (1998), Heery (2006b) and Briskin (2006) can explain how bargaining for family provisions and other equality items is undertaken. Based on five rich case studies of bargaining undertaken by four key Australian unions, collective negotiations for new or increased family provisions are followed in diverse sectors using equality bargaining theories.
This thesis makes two important contributions to existing research on equality bargaining. First, the case studies show that there are different types of equality bargaining, which form a continuum ranging from ‘narrow’, where only one or a few gender equality items are negotiated, to ‘transformational’ equality bargaining, which seeks to achieve substantive equality for a range of equal opportunity target groups. Second, the research reveals a range of facilitative and inhibitive factors which impacted on the equality bargaining, some of which are new, others which reinforce previous findings.
Four significant findings arise from the Australian case studies. First, the union negotiators mostly engaged in narrow equality bargaining which was symbolic of a commitment to gender equality, with the most common symbol being a paid maternity leave clause of some form. The negotiations, however, did not progress towards making real changes within the workplace to achieve substantive gender equality. Nevertheless, the negotiations undertaken indicate that equality bargaining is occurring in Australia.
Second, the external environment has a profound impact on equality bargaining. The wider economic, industrial relations and related social policy environment all had a significant impact on the equality bargaining undertaken. The main external factor which impacted on all the case study negotiations was the Productivity Commission’s paid parental leave inquiry and the associated campaign conducted by unions and community groups.
Third, industry and organisational level factors are critical for equality bargaining. The use of a common or ‘core’ claim for an industry, developed by union leaders and members and used throughout all negotiations, has been shown to be an effective way to progress equality bargaining. While union leadership is essential in the development of a core claim, strong union leadership is also necessary to progress gender equality issues throughout the negotiations and overcome any dissent from union members as well as employers.
Fourth, two main inhibitive factors for equality bargaining are identified. The first is the government’s new paid parental leave scheme, as both employer and union negotiators reasoned that possible government action on this front made it unnecessary to introduce or increase this entitlement through collective bargaining. The second inhibitive factor was ‘majoritarianism’ (Blackett and Shepperd, 2003), where items of benefit to women are traded off for items to benefit the whole workforce. Majoritarianism emanated from both union delegates and union leadership within separate unions.
This thesis shows that equality bargaining is a useful concept to improve understanding of collective bargaining in 21st century Australia, where women make up almost 50 per cent of the workforce and where family responsibilities have a significant bearing on employment capabilities. In an applied sense, the thesis shows the need – and potential – for equality bargaining in Australia is significant. Equality bargaining is a vital area not only to ensure that unions fully represent the needs of their members and secure relevant provisions, but also to ease the strains of working life for both male and female employees. The unions featured in this thesis have started to move in this direction, demonstrating that even while equality bargaining is currently narrow and symbolic, it is also emerging as a highly relevant framework for collective bargaining.