February 29, 2016

I was rather slack last week and forgot to post my next alpha letter. My excuse is that I was preparing to both teach and be taught. This semester I’m teaching Advanced Arts Management at the University of Melbourne and both Effective Business Communications and Human Resource Development at Central Queensland University. But in addition, I’ve just spend the weekend starting my Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. Ironically, in the current Australian adult education world, I can teach at post-graduate level without a Cert IV but not in the Vocational Education and Training system. Still, having written about Humility in my last blog it was entirely appropriate that I re-experienced the life of a student. Luckily, the presenter was good and my class mates helpful so we all survived two intense full days of learning with more to come.

Today’s extract is about Industrial Relations. To a degree, this topic has many points which are specific to the Australian system but any reader who deals with unions and industrial agreements of some form will appreciate the impact that industrial relations has on the workplace.


“Industrial Relations (IR)  involves the activities of governments, industrial tribunals, employer associations, trade unions and the impact of industrial law, awards, terms and conditions of work, grievance procedures, dispute settlement, advocacy and collective bargaining in determining the rules about employment relationships (Stone, 2013) but apparently it’s very old fashioned of me to even use the phrase. In writing a book about what I would have called IR when teaching it in the 1970s and 1980s, both Balnave et al (2009) and Bray, Waring & Cooper (2009) decided to call their books ‘Employment Relations’. A couple of years later, Teicher, Holland & Gough (2013) found that even that phrase failed to capture the interconnected stories of HR management, government intervention and the voice of the un-unionised and so chose to call their book ‘Workplace Relations’.  However, even though IR is consider to be negative  because of sensationalist reporting of conflict and the role of unions that is seen to be at the heart of it (Bray, Waring & Cooper 2009), as my particular focus in this section is about the impact of government legislation on employment relations, it still feels appropriate.

There are different approaches to Industrial Relations – unitarist, pluralist, radical or Marxist, although you don’t hear much of the latter these days.  In the unitarist world (which is often the world of the human resource expert), workplace conflict is a temporary aberration. Life is about teamwork and mutual cooperation, with direct communication between management and employees based on common objectives. If conflict does occur it’s because of poor management or workers that don’t fit in or trade union interference.  It’s a view to be found on the right wing of politics but ironically (because many arts workers tend to be left-voting), it’s a view that most arts managers would rather like to think was the case in their organisation. Because people actively choose to work in an arts organisation, there are shared values and shared objectives, teamwork and mutual cooperation. And sometimes it does feel as if unions interfere with the smooth running of the company. However, just because employees are committed to the art form, doesn’t mean that they feel they have power in the relationship or are comfortable without the support of a trade union.

The truth of the matter in countries like Australia with a democracy, a strong (if fading) tradition of trade unionism, a legal structure that supports the rights of unions, facilitates group bargaining and provides conciliation and arbitration processes, we have a pluralist system where trade unions are legitimate representatives of employee interests and managers have to learn to negotiate with a collective rather than individuals with the State as the umpire.”


Balnave, N, Brown J, Maconachie, G & Stone, R J 2009, Employment Relations in Australia, 2nd ed, John Wiley & Sons, Milton QLD

Bray, M, Waring, P & Cooper, R 2009, Employment Relations, McGraw-Hill, Sydney

Stone, R J 2013, Managing Human Resources, 4th edn,  John Wiley & Sons, Milton QLD

Teicher, J, Holland, P & Gough, R 2013, Australian Workplace Relations, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne