Case study: Catholic Education (Annual Report 2013–14)

Case study: Catholic Education (Annual Report 2013–14)

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The Catholic Education system in Victoria
is a big, complex business. It employs nearly 24,000 people with an annual wages bill of
around $1.5 billion. In the last bargaining over an enterprise agreement the negotiations
stalled. We’d got to a point where neither party
was prepared to give much ground and things weren’t progressing very well. We had the
start of the next school year looming so both parties agreed that we needed someone else
to step in and give us a hand so we could get an agreement settled. We both came to the conclusion at the same
time that going to Fair Work was going to be the way that we were going to best move
forward and I have no doubt whatsoever that that’ll be an element of bargaining into
the future for as long into the future as we have a Fair Work. The Catholic Education system is an unusual
industrial relations environment. There’s about 488 schools. But more importantly,
there are about 320 separate employers that make up those 488 schools. The majority of
them are Parish Priests so they are in charge of the primary school—they are the employer.
The major issue is that there are so many of them. The main thing that’ll go wrong is that
one side or the other will become locked in to a position because of the large number
of people—the big audience—that they’re working to. The worst part is that people
end up, because there’s such a broad range of negotiations that have to go on to formulate
people’s positions, they end up locked in to a position on a particular issue. Teacher’s salaries follow those in the state
sector. But salaries and conditions for the many support staff are negotiated during the
enterprise bargaining. There were a number of issues in terms of,
for example, the management of performance and conduct for employees, things around changes
to personal leave—a number of matters that we were seeking. But then on the other side
they were also seeking a number of matters which we weren’t prepared to concede on
either. There were quite a few. The performance management
processes in the agreement were a major sticking point. Some of the breaks and hours issues
were really difficult matters to deal with. So there were some quite big issues. The Fair Work Commission held a series of
conferences with the parties over several months, chaired by Commissioner Bissett. It was a change in process. There are 70 clauses
and eight appendices and 10 salary schedules so the Commissioner didn’t work through
every one of those. But she did help us to work through the key issues which then gave
us the way forward to us sitting down and resolving all those other matters. She really just tested the parties on their
positions. She was quite creative—she’s got a good knowledge of the industry—so
she was quite creative and had good suggestions to make to us about how to try to break deadlocks
and how to creatively think about our positions and always come back testing us about positions
that were entrenched. This is where the Commissioner was very helpful
in terms of we could each identify six key issues that we wanted to talk about then we
would pick one. We would provide our viewpoint on that issue, the union would then provide
their viewpoint, then the Commissioner would talk to us jointly—as I said, give us a
bit of a reality check sometimes—and then also separate us so we could talk separately
with her and then try and come together with what was common and what we could resolve
that was still under dispute. The other difficulty that we faced with that
was sometimes we found the employer locked on to a particular draft of a clause and she
was always creative about ways to move people—to make them a little more fluid about their
negotiating position. Without Commissioner Bissett’s assistance—and
she was pretty firm with both of us and wouldn’t take much nonsense—is that without her assistance
we probably wouldn’t have been able to get to an agreement. If we hadn’t had that assistance
we may well still be at the bargaining table. I think it’s quite possible we’d still
be there! There’s absolutely no chance that we would have got the outcome that we did
get without the intervention of the Commission at that time, in that timeframe. Also, having her involved—and her generous
commitment of time and things—it enabled the whole approval process to be very quick
and very smooth in terms of we were able to lodge and within seven days we had the approval
from the Commission which helped with implementation so that people in our schools got their back-pay,
got their sign-on bonus. I think it was a really good outcome. It was
a difficult bargaining environment. All of the wages for the non- teaching staff, for
the support staff, were at issue and we ended up with very good results in those areas—
good increases for those people. And really good outcomes in some of the other areas as
well. So things like performance management processes and breaks and arrangements of hours—really
good outcomes. We have close to 24,000 employees covered
by this agreement and we got a 99 per cent yes vote for our agreement so I suppose that
gives some endorsement that the agreement is a fair agreement and
the process was good.

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