Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Change is workers' only certainty

The shape of our economy is always changing, but lately the pace of change seems to have got a lot faster. Some industries are expanding, while others contract. Particular industries are having to change the way they operate - or the range of products they produce - in response to many pressures.

These changes almost always leave us better off materially. ''Structural change'', as economists call it, has been central to the process by which people in the developed world have become ever more affluent over the past 200 years.

The greatest force driving structural change is technological advance: the invention of better ways of doing things, new things to do and countless labour-saving machines. Globalisation has been driven partly by government policy, but mainly by the information and communications technology revolution, which has hugely increased the speed and reduced the cost at which information, money and people move around the world.
This has given us the global financial markets, but also the rise of the developing economies, particularly in Asia. Those countries' growing demand for our minerals and energy is bringing us great wealth but is also bringing intense pressure for change in the shape of our economy. Mining and the services sector are expanding, whereas manufacturing, the tourism industry and education exporters are being forced to adjust.

Then there are all the industries under pressure from the internet and the emergence of ''new media'': newspapers, free-to-air television, book publishing and book selling, and retailers whose customers have discovered how much more cheaply they can buy some things on the net.

The trouble with structural change, of course, is that the benefits go to the customers - new products, wider choice, lower prices - while all the problems go to the people working in the disrupted industries.

Managers have to find a new plan for their firm's survival. Meanwhile, workers go through considerable uncertainty and anxiety. At best, they have to shift to doing something completely different. They may be required to do a lot more for the same money. Perks may be cut. Or their prospects of advancement curtailed.

They may lose their status as permanents. At worst they get shown the door and take a long time to find another job. That job may well involve doing the same work for less money and poorer conditions - perhaps for the business to which their work was outsourced.

Managers have no choice but to face up to the business's changed conditions and cut their cloth accordingly. When they resist change or pretend it isn't happening they just make things worse. Non-unionised employees have to cop whatever solutions managers impose on them. But well-unionised employees have more power to resist, or at least have their viewpoint taken into account.

No firm fits this frame better than Qantas. It has lost its protected status as the nation's flag-carrier and must find a strategy for competing with myriad competitors, many of them low-cost. It can no longer afford the high salaries and cushy conditions its pilots, engineers and other employees have become accustomed to.

The problem at Qantas was not that workers wanted too much in pay rises - that's the standard stuff of such bargaining - but that they wanted to use their industrial muscle to force management to agree never to change the business in ways that disadvantaged their employees.

Sorry, but that's not possible. Here you see the grounds for business's latest complaint against Julia Gillard's Fair Work changes to industrial relations. Gillard has removed the list of ''prohibited content'' restricting the matters over which management and unions may bargain. This has permitted the unions to range far beyond claims about wages and conditions to issues that concern ''managerial prerogative'' and thus challenge ''management's right to manage''.

It's important to remember we're still engaged in the difficult transition from almost a century of compulsory arbitration - where, as soon as a strike began the umpire would step in to impose a settlement on both sides - to a new world of collective bargaining.

A central goal in making this transition - one expressed many times by the now-bellicose Peter Reith - is to encourage the two sides to bargain without external intervention. The goal was a new era of reduced industrial disruption as the parties recognised the great extent of their common interests and put less emphasis on their (undoubted) conflicting interests.

Right on. So I don't think banning debate about management decisions is the smart way to go. That would mean the law advantaging one side, giving managers permission to ride roughshod over the interests and even the opinions of their employees.

Half the trouble at Qantas is the employees' failure to recognise how the game has changed for their company, robbing them of their former bargaining power. The other half is the arrogance of management in their resort to ''managerial prerogative'', in their failure to explain and debate the new realities with their staff.

It's painfully clear management-employee relations within Qantas are utterly poisonous. The blame for that should be shared equally. The fate of Qantas is important in its own right, but it's more important as a case study in how big, unionised companies cope with structural change.

The industrial parties need to reach an accommodation, not rush to the ref. But I agree with Professor Paul Gollan, of Macquarie University, that Fair Work needs to provide a better mechanism to help the parties argue through their differences in cases where belligerence on either side threatens to impose unnecessary hardship on the parties and the public.