Posts Tagged ‘Works council’

Union officials Joe and Jane congratulate managers Zanko and Anthony on the arrival of the new, safer stock picker, driven by Dave.

Union member Dave showcases the newly-arrived, safer stock picker. Union officials Joe and Jane and managers Zanko and Anthony all worked to this moment.

Here are two of my colleagues at a furniture distribution centre in Western Sydney. The photo is for an article in the next edition of the union journal about an innovative safety improvement that resulted from constructive collaboration between the union and site management.

The picker in the photo is the first of its kind. It is designed to lift goods up to 8 metres off the ground. The operator walks out of the cage onto the platform where he or she moves goods on and off the shelves. A harness is provided so they can’t fall but that’s only half the problem: if you place too many goods on the platform, the weight can tip the whole picker. Sadly one of these officials has dealt with a situation where exactly that happened, resulting in the death of a worker who fell onto a concrete floor.

The good news is that the hazard was raised with site management who accepted that it was a legitimate concern and set about working with Toyota to devise this first-of-its-kind picker that automatically measures the weight on the platform and sounds an alarm if load limits are approached.

I post this on here because the Murdoch-dominated press coverage of unions in Australia is so overwhelmingly negative that it’s worth remembering what the real work of unions looks like on a day to day basis.

I might also add that fresh data out of the UK shows that, in recent years, rises in union density are associated with rises in productivity.

The happy picker operators at this site are in no doubt why that is so.

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In Friday’s post I described an epic four-year battle to have a union recognised in place of an employer sponsored works council. It wouldn’t hurt to ask, why is that so bad?

A workers council in this context means a representative body of workers formed for consultation over workplace practices and changes. It does not have to supplant the function of a union. In Europe they frequently exist alongside unions. In Australia a specific form, the Occupational Health & Safety Committee, is semi-required by legislation.

The difference is that they stand squarely underneath the umbrella of managerial prerogative. If management decides to disband them, or alter their manner of election, or cease attending their meetings, there is little workers can do about it.

A union on the other hand has a personality independent of the company. It is owned by the workers. It may not be able to negotiate everything the workers want, but at least it can keep asking by various means. Above all its continued existence is protected by international convention and, usually, local laws also.

A union has a further advantage over a Works Council: the big picture. Union representatives have a knowledge of past negotiations and disputes, and of similar disputes in factories elsewhere. They know how far an issue can be pushed, and what tools can be used to push it. They can bring in information from outside about improved work practices which may never have occurred to the workers in a particular factory. A works council has access to none of this.

A works council might be appropriate as a consultative mechanism in a situation where the outcome is not likely to be divisive (“What colour should our new logo be?”) but on issues where management and employees remain sharply at odds, the deck is stacked in favour of management.

This is why the Unilever workers in Assam are upset. Their union has been supplanted by a management-sponsored committee with no teeth.

Further reading

Two takes on French works councils, from highly divergent perspectives: