Academic journal article Journal of Management and Organization

Agency and the Deunionisation of Managers in an Australian Telecommunications Company

Academic journal article Journal of Management and Organization

Agency and the Deunionisation of Managers in an Australian Telecommunications Company

Article excerpt


Discussions about deunionisation usually focus on lower levels of the workforce with managers seen as the initiators of deunionisation strategies. Managers, however, occupy contradictory positions as agents of capital, employees and possibly trade unionists. This can place them in the position of being both recipients and conduits in deunionisation strategies. The focus of the study is on Telstra, the major telecommunications carrier in Australia. Using a range of sources such as interviews and company and union materials, this qualitative research shows how between 1992 and 2000 Telstra's senior management's concerns over middle management agency prompted them to reframe the concept of a manager by using a set of managerial practices from the mining company CRA and the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act (1996) to individualise and deunionise their managerial ranks as a precursor to the deunionisation of the wider workforce.

Keywords: agency, managers, trade unions, deunionisation, Australia, telecommunications


Managers occupy an ambiguous position within organisations acting as both agents of capital and as employees. This ambiguity means that there is a contradiction between the role managers play in the labour process where they establish cooperative relations with the workforce, their role as employees and their role as agents of capital where the extraction of surplus value created by the labour process means labour is treated as a commodity (Armstrong, 2008; Carchedi, 1977). As employees, managers can seek to protect their interests by joining trade unions (LaNuez & Jermier, 1994) but this may cause contradictions with their role as agents of capital seeking to maximise surplus value. One way that senior managers can seek to resolve this tension is by persuading managers to relinquish their union membership. Surprisingly there is relatively little literature on managers as members of trade unions, possibly because in countries such as the US managers are prohibited by legislation from joining trade unions (Voos, 2005) or it is assumed they are less inclined to be union members (Eaton & Voos, 2004). This article focuses on managers as trade union members in Telstra, Australia's largest telecommunications company, and how senior management sought to resolve this dilemma surrounding managerial agency by deunionising their managerial workforce and then using those managers to facilitate the deunionisation of the broader workforce.

As with other public sector monopolies, Telstra's corporate governance was characterised by collective and relatively stable relations between management and unions over its 100 year history. Whilst the history of Telstra and its unions has been described as a 'history of disputes', management largely dealt with unions within a constitutional model of labour relations (Muller, 1980). In contrast to many private sector organisations, most employees and indeed managers were either members of the Public Sector Union (PSU), later to become the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), representing administrative, professional and information technology workers and covering around one-third of the workforce or the larger Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) which covered communications officers, technicians and operators. Managers were more likely to be members of the PSU and for this reason it is the union at the centre of this research. In the 1970s new left leaderships and a series of industrial disputes, mainly from the technical unions, cemented the unions' central place within the organisation. The workforce was highly unionised with trade unions imbued within the organisation with only the most senior positions exempt from industrial awards and union coverage. Given such strong union history and coverage, major deunionisation strategies seemed unlikely to succeed.

The research on how organisations individualise and deunionise employees has usually been analysed in terms of employees being decollectivised by employers and are often looked at as being driven by management and applied to employees (cf. …

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