Experiences of mediation; industrial and workplace negotiations

Paul Howes at the Press Club 5 February 2014 via ABC News

Paul Howes at the Press Club 5 February 2014 via ABC News

With the Abbott Coalition Government and Australian Workers’ Union leader Paul Howes using the Australian media to respond to the Fair Work Commission’s Modern Awards Review, industrial and workplace negotiation techniques are once again in the press.

In January this year the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the state government settled a Federal Court case through court ordered mediation.  The settlement was reported as a “secret deal” by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) in an article that criticised the AEU for refusing to release the text of the settlement. A union official told the reporter that the terms of the agreement were “not for general distribution” (Source: ICFI)

“Secret Deal” sounds far more sinister than “a confidential settlement agreement”. Confidentiality is essential to building trust in a mediation process, and indeed, is a requirement of the Australian National Mediator Standards. But in the case of industrial and workplace negotiations, does it not serve the public interest to keep employees and employers alike informed and seek their input and feedback?

The Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota union (AHEM) in America uses its own, dedicated mediation news blog to keep its members, and the general public, informed without disclosing the details of their discussions with district representatives. The AHEM team announced the decision to engage with a mediator in January, writing:

“Six months of bargaining between the AHEM negotiations team and the district representatives have produced so little progress that we believe it is now time to request state mediation.

We expect this step will unfortunately move talks behind closed doors, but we believe it will also accelerate our progress toward a fair and competitive settlement that will allow our educators to once again give their undivided attention to teaching and learning…

As you can see, we need the help of the Bureau of Mediation Services. We anticipate the mediator will follow standard practice and close sessions to the public, but we will continue to provide you with as many details as possible during mediation.”

They reported back to their stakeholders after the first mediation session:

“Our first session of mediation was typical in that it focused on bringing the mediator up to speed and ensuring everyone had a clear understanding of each side’s proposals and priorities.

One difference in this phase of bargaining is that both sides are strongly advised by the Bureau of Mediation Services to keep the bargaining at the table – that is, not to publicize the specifics of our discussion. We agreed to that principle.  We can say that we have scheduled two more sessions with the district and mediator: Thursday, February 6th and Thursday, February 27th.”

AHEM’s approach certainly seems more dignified than Australia’s public debates over workplace entitlements, which were described by Howes as “industrial warfare” and a “blood sport”.

“We must draw the key industrial players together to find a new form of stability,” Mr Howes said; sounds like a matter ripe for mediation to me.

You can read more about Fair Work Australia’s review at Workplace Info’s website with all submissions available to view on the Fair Work Commission’s website.


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