Australian Firms Try One-Union Labor Contracts

Reducing management-worker conflict improves competitiveness. EMPLOYEE RELATIONS

FIVE years ago an Australian manager would have been certain to cause a strike by asking a worker to perform more than one job.

Today, David Jenkinson, manager of Southern Aluminum's Bell Bay, Tasmania factory can ask workers to do almost any job. The difference is that the factory, which makes aluminum wheels for the Japanese auto industry, is a newly constructed plant and its workers are all represented by one union.

"The advantage of one union is that people can work to the limits of their capability versus the limits set by demarcation," Mr. Jenkinson says.

This change is a major shift in industrial relations here. Almost any new factory or company can negotiate to have only one union represent its workers. Corporate managers are catching on:

* Optus Communications, which will be the second telecommunications provider in Australia, will negotiate with only one union. Its competitor, Telecom, has 15 unions.

* Toyota Motor Company in Melbourne will have only one union at a new plant it is building. At other factories, it has eight unions. Melbourne-based Ford Motor Company, Toyota's chief rival, is pursuing an enterprise bargaining agreement in which all the unions within a Ford plant are seen as one group receiving the same wage award. Ford's unions will remain separate, though.

* The Daimaru Australia department store in Melbourne has signed a draft agreement for a single union to represent employees who would normally be separated into four to five unions.

The change is taking place with the blessing of organized labor. "We've encouraged it. There is no question about that," says Max Ogden, an industrial officer at the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in Melbourne.

The difficulty of coordinating wage awards with changing technology is driving organized labor's support. "There is too much potential for conflict," explains Mr. Ogden. For example, a worker on a shop floor may have to enter information into a computer terminal - a process which may have been done by a worker from a different union in the past. "We can now work across boundaries," Ogden says.

The implications are not lost on Australian companies. Optus plans to train its workers to do many tasks. For example, instead of using several workers to install a new phone, Optus will try to use one. Optus also plans to negotiate a wage package with a strong bias toward productivity and customer service. Terry Winters, a company director, says the union will be involved in training, research and development, and management decisions. In return for the multiskill approach and the productivity agreement s, Winters says Optus employees are likely to make more money than employees at Telecom.

Telecom is also going through a major change. Of its 15 unions, four of the unions representing 95 percent of the workers are now amalgamating into two unions. This trend is being encouraged by the ACTU, which requires every union to either have 10,000 members nationally or merge with another union.

For Daimaru, there are also important implications. Clerks working in back offices can be used on the selling floor during peak times. This will give Daimaru an advantage over its competitors since no other retailer has that flexibility.

Ogden says management is accustomed to following the ideas of American labor theorist Frederick Taylor. "He [Taylor] argued that there was only one right way to do a job and employees should not think or have initiative," Ogden says.

This management approach helped to set the stage for confrontational unions, with shop stewards representing scores of small unions. Industrial warfare began. Labor problems in Australia became commonplace.

Jenkinson at Southern Aluminum found that "it took a while to show people the importance of a conciliatory approach." Workers agreed to a nonstrike contract and management agreed not to lock out workers in disputes.

"All other things being equal," Jenkinson says, "the single union at Southern must give the company an advantage."

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