Unions – not something that a small business needs to worry about, right? Wrong!
A small business can just as easily find themselves dealing directly with a union as a larger organisation. That’s not to say that as a small business owner you need to be ‘worried’, just aware of what a union is and the role they play in Australian workplaces.
What is a union?
A union (sometimes called a trade union), is simply an organisation that represents a group of workers from a specific industry or trade. For example, the Australian Education Union represents teachers and principals. The Finance Sector Union represents workers within the finance and insurance industries. The SDA represents workers within the retail, fast food and warehousing industries.
What is the purpose of a union?
A union’s purpose is to protect the rights, conditions and wellbeing of members. Some employees feel confident and capable enough to negotiate their own pay and conditions with their employer, but many don’t. Others may feel capable, but are intimidated by the sheer size of the organisation they work for. Unions use the power of their collective numbers to secure pay and conditions for their members.
Are my employees union members?
Possibly. Any employee has the right to join a union. They may have been a union member before starting with you or could join whilst being employed by you. Some employees see no benefit in being a union member – it’s an individual choice. One employer may have no members whilst another may have their entire staff as union members.
What effect will a union have on my business?
The terms and conditions under which you will employ your staff have most likely been influenced by a union. They play a big role in the development of employment legislation, including awards and employment standards and will continue to do so. They can also become involved in the negotiation of enterprise agreements.
If you are employing union members you may need to deduct and remit union dues from member salaries (if requested by your employees). You could also be contacted by a union with a request to meet with your employees or enter your workplace. If your employees want to speak with the union you cannot prevent this, as long as it does not unreasonably disrupt business. You also cannot prevent the union from entering your workplace if they have a ‘right of entry’ permit and are investigating a breach of the Fair Work Act or similar on behalf of their members. You can deny entry for investigation purposes if there are no union members employed at that site.
Some employers without union members may still be contacted by a union, for the purpose of recruiting members. It is up to your employees if they wish to meet, or not. Again, you cannot prevent such a meeting, so long as it does not unreasonably disrupt business.
Unions have a ‘colourful’ reputation, but do play an important role in the employment arena. Small business, given their staffing numbers, are less likely than big business to have direct dealings with unions, but should never-the-less be aware of them.
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