Reforming the Australian Workplace through Employee Participation

By Lansbury, Russell D.; Davis, Edward M. et al. | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Reforming the Australian Workplace through Employee Participation


Lansbury, Russell D., Davis, Edward M., Simmons, David, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


Introduction

There has been considerable debate about workplace reforms in Australia and the importance of consultation, employee participation and industrial democracy in achieving these reforms (see Davis and Lansbury, 1996). Within the higher councils of employers' organisations, trade unions and government there has been broad consensus about the need for greater employee involvement in decision-making. Yet, as this paper demonstrates, there was a discrepancy between policy pronouncements and reform at the level of the enterprise. A landmark government report, entitled The Global Challenge: Australian Manufacturing in the 1990s, lamented that Australian managers lagged 'in their appreciation of employee participation' and did not make the link to improved performance (AMC, 1990). Furthermore, the Report of the Industry Taskforce on Leadership and Management Skills (the Karpin Report) in 1995 drew attention to the slow pace of implementation of higher levels of consultation and employee participation (Karpin, 1995). Nonetheless, the decade since the unveiling of the federal government's policy paper on Industrial Democracy and Employee Participation (DEIR, 1986) has witnessed some of the most extensive industrial relations reforms this century.

This paper seeks to gauge the extent to which employees and their unions have been involved in decisions at the enterprise level and to explore the kinds of issues which they have influenced and the nature of their involvement. A case study of the experience of the Ford Motor Company with workplace reform is used to illustrate a positive example of employee participation in Australian industry over the past decade. This paper will seek to clarify the issues in the broad debate and to ascertain why greater progress has not been made in implementing employee participation at a time of unprecedented dominance by Labor and trade union influence at the national level.

Conceptual Issues

During the mid 1980s the term 'industrial democracy' was common currency in both political and academic discourse (see Davis and Lansbury 1986: 23). Yet it was rarely favoured by employers who indicated that it smacked of a challenge to managerial prerogative. Their preference was for 'employee participation'. In their report Industrial Democracy and Employee Participation (DEIR, 1986) the Australian government concluded that industrial democracy and employee participation were different aspects of the same concept:

Industrial democracy is the ideal, the goal to work towards.... Employee participation describes the processes that lead to a greater degree of employee influence and is an essential part of the process for achieving industrial democracy. Employee participation means employees having the opportunity to have a genuine say and influence on decision making (DEIR, 1986:4).

During the 1990s there was less reference to industrial democracy and greater emphasis on employee participation and consultation. The unions indicated that they were less concerned with the label and more with the substance. Their focus remained on the influence employees exert on decision making at work. Crucial are employees' rights and their actual experience of consultation and participation.

The importance of management-employee consultation at the workplace lies in the opportunity for employees to discover more about workplace issues and to influence their deterrnination. The nature of consultation can vary widely. It may be direct, from manager to employee, or indirect, from manager to employee representatives. It may be informal, reflecting a 'walk the talk' style of management, or it may be formal, as within a joint consultative committee.

Allen (1987) argued that workers benefited more from consultation over matters that had not already been determined and that they preferred to consult with managers who had the authority to make decisions. …

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