How will Howard's anti-union plans affect us?
The Coalition government is selling its regressive industrial relations plans with promises of prosperity for all, jobs growth and productivity growth. The reality, however, will be a significant loss of basic working conditions, a lowering of wages and a restriction of democratic rights.
Federal workplace relations minister Kevin Andrews has let the truth slip out twice. When a journalist asked him on March 9 if he could guarantee that workers will not be worse off under the changes and that their wages and conditions will not be cut, Andrews evasively replied: "What I can say is that our whole purpose of reform of industrial relations over the past few years is about ensuring that the prosperity for all Australians continues."
In a speech in Melbourne on February 25, Andrews claimed that ideas of "fairness" in workplaces were "misconceived" and that "an emphasis on fairness only leads to regulatory excess and inefficiency".
The Business Council of Australia (BCA), the organisation representing 100 of the largest corporations, spearheaded the anti-worker changes with its Workplace Relations Action Plan, which proposes attacks on workers' wages, conditions and democratic rights.
On Channel 9's Sunday program on February 6, Prime Minister John Howard made clear what he intends to do to awards — which are sets of minimum wages and conditions — when he said that "award simplification has a lot to commend it".
Currently there are 20 allowable conditions within awards. The BCA wants to reduce these to six conditions and the Coalition wants a maximum of 16, perhaps less. This means that fundamental working conditions like penalty rates, redundancy pay, overtime pay, safeguards for outworkers, long service leave, notice of sackings, superannuation, allowances and the regulation of casual work could be lost.
Howard also plans to end pattern bargaining, a process where strong union sites win decent enterprise bargain agreements and these are transferred to weaker sites. Other proposed attacks include abolishing the state-based industrial relations systems (which have superior working conditions to the federal system), and making it easier for businesses with less than 20 workers to sack staff.
It is the most vulnerable and unskilled workers who rely on awards and who will lose the most. These measures will lead to an increase in the working poor and mean that more workers have lousy conditions.
The Coalition has been floating the idea of changing the current system, whereby minimum wages are determined by bosses and unions lodging submissions to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Around 1.8 million of the most poorly paid workers get their wage increases in this manner. The BCA proposed that a minimum wage board be established, consisting of key individuals with "economic expertise", to keep minimum wages low because unemployment exists.
But it will not only be the most poorly paid who will have their wages checked. The BCA has proposed a less restrictive "no-disadvantage" test on enterprise bargaining agreements. This will mean that wages in enterprise bargains will be compared to wages in the new gutted award system. Higher award rates of pay for some skilled workers will be abolished.
Howard is also planning an offensive on the democratic rights of workers to organise. The government has already passed legislation in the House of Representatives that severely restricts union officials' right to enter the workplace. Officials will only be able to enter the workplace twice a year and even this token access can be easily revoked. Recruitment to the union can only occur during meal breaks.
The right to strike during times of protected industrial action will be severely restricted. Anyone affected by industrial action can apply to have it stopped and there will be extended "cooling off" periods. Strikes will be banned prior to the expiry of an enterprise agreement.
There are also targeted measures against unions in the construction industry. Fines for building unions will be increased five-fold to $110,000 and for individuals to $22,000. It will be easier to prosecute union officials and members. A permanent body, the Building and Construction Commission, will be established to oversee these attacks.
Whether you're a professional, a Hungry Jacks casual or a building worker, under the Coalition government's offensive you will be worse off. Women are disproportionately represented in unskilled and casual jobs and will be worse affected by the gutting of awards. The conditions of many skilled workers covered by enterprise bargaining agreements will drift downwards because the "no-disadvantage" test will lower standards. More militant building workers will lose by potentially being prosecuted for taking strike action.
[James Vassilopoulos is a member of the Australian Education Union and an activist in the Socialist Alliance.]
From Green Left Weekly, March 23, 2005.
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