Case study

When bargaining for an enterprise agreement stalled, the one thing that both the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria Limited and the Independent Education Union could agree on was that they needed the Fair Work Commission’s help to overcome the impasse. The assistance they received from Commissioner Bissett was the key factor in renewing negotiations, which ultimately led to a new enterprise agreement being approved.

After many months of negotiation for a new enterprise agreement for Catholic schools in Victoria, the bargaining process had ground to a halt. Both parties had found themselves in positions that were seemingly closed to negotiation.

“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,” Denis Matson from the Independent Education Union said.

John Jordan from the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria Limited agreed, saying, “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.”

Enterprise bargaining stalls

The Catholic education system in Victoria has nearly 24 000 staff and an annual salary bill exceeding $1.5 billion. But its employees are employed by more than 320 employers and spread across 488 different schools. In many cases, the employer is a parish priest who may have a limited knowledge of the intricacies of the Australian workplace relations system. The Catholic Education Office has responsibility for negotiating the enterprise agreement on behalf of all of those employers.

Salaries for teachers are not a sticking point, as they are matched to teacher salaries in the state education system. But there were other points in this negotiation that had become real obstacles. These included:

  • salaries for support staff in schools including office staff, maintenance staff, technical staff, principals and deputy principals, and
  • issues such as performance management and conduct, changes to personal leave, breaks and management of hours.

How the Commission helped

The parties worked with Commissioner Bissett to focus on the matters that were preventing an agreement.

“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,” Mr Jordan said.

Mr Matson said Commissioner Bissett’s knowledge of the industry was an advantage. “She was quite creative and had good suggestions to make us think about how to try to break deadlocks and how to creatively think about our positions and always came back testing us about positions that were entrenched,” he said.

The parties met with Commissioner Bissett on many occasions at the neutral ground of the Commission. The Commissioner helped the parties to identify six key issues to talk about in negotiations.

For each issue the education office and the union would provide their viewpoint and the Commissioner would talk to both parties jointly. Then each party would talk separately with the Commissioner before coming back together to agree on what was common ground and which of the disputed matters could be resolved.

“Because we get a limited time with the Commissioner, it focused us on the key issues that we needed to resolve,’ Mr Jordan said. “If it was left to us, we could possibly just keep meeting and meeting and meeting and not making any progress.”

The resolution

Both sides agreed that Commissioner Bissett’s help broke the deadlocks in bargaining and allowed a new enterprise agreement to be struck.

“Without Commissioner Bissett’s assistance—and she was pretty firm with both of us and wouldn’t take much nonsense—we probably wouldn’t have been able to get to an agreement,” Mr Jordan said.

The union’s Denis Matson agreed saying, “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. We may have eventually got there, although I have to say I even doubt that.”

Another benefit of Commissioner Bissett’s involvement was that it allowed the approval of the final enterprise agreement to be completed within seven days of it being lodged.

Both sides are very happy with the agreement that was reached. Mr Matson described the agreement as a “really good outcome—it was a difficult bargaining environment”. While Mr Jordan said, “We have close to 24 000 employees covered by this agreement and we got a 99 per cent yes vote so I suppose that gives some endorsement that the agreement is a fair agreement and the process was good.”