More than 600 delegates representing 2 million union members met for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) congress on October 25-26.
The two-day meeting — it is usually four days — focused on an alternative industrial relations policy and the campaign to elect the Labor Party to federal government. All other issues, such as apprenticeships and vocational training, uranium mining and section 457 visas, were deferred to the December ACTU executive meeting.
Only one plan was put forward to defeat the Howard government: to vote Labor in. While voting Howard out should be a key goal for unionists, the ACTU's plan for how to do this was limited to more TV advertising, electoral campaigning in marginal seats, working within Howard's laws, and coming up with an alternative IR policy that the ALP is comfortable with.
Over the next 12 months, the ACTU will focus on promoting its alternative policy by intensifying its TV advertising and marginal seat campaigning. ACTU assistant secretary Chris Walton informed delegates that unions will target 22 Coalition-held seats with 20 full-time marginal-seat campaign coordinators being funded by all medium to large unions.
The ACTU will also work to improve workplace organisation and mobilise people against Howard's IR laws. The delegates were urged to go all out to get their members to the November 30 national day of action against Work Choices.
Unions have pledged $20 million to the ACTU's campaign fund, to be raised through a $5.50 levy on each union member over two years. The ACTU is also collecting funds through its Your Rights at Work website, recently raising $50,000 for a billboard on the Tullamarine Freeway in just a few days.
The congress launched "Unions Australia", a project aiming to recruit the 1.5 million people not currently in a union but who would like to join. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a 4% increase in union membership in 2005-06: an extra 70,000 union members. Unions Australia allows workers to join a union by phoning a hotline (1300 486 466) or via the internet (<http://www.actu.asn.au>).
The ACTU's alternative IR policy was passed without major amendment. The main elements are:
legislated minimum employment standards in combination with comprehensive awards;
10 legislated minimum employment standards;
reinstatement of an unfair dismissal system;
right of workers to join unions and be represented by their union;
enforceable legal right to collective bargaining where a majority of workers want a collective agreement, although such agreements could be union or non-union;
both unions and employers be required to bargain in good faith;
enterprise bargaining is the basis of the policy although pattern bargaining would also be allowed. However, industry-wide bargaining is not considered;
Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs — individual contracts) to be abolished;
a national Labor government to use its constitutional powers to legislate a national industrial relations system while recognising that state governments will continue to have a role in regulating the workplace; and
no employer greenfields agreements that enable employers to establish wages and working conditions for employees without negotiating with unions when a company changes hands or a new company or work site is established.
Amendments were put by the Victorian left unions to include the right to strike among the fundamental policy principles and to guarantee the right to penalty rates among the 10 minimum employment standards.
Some useful statistics were included in the congress delegate kits, but their implications were largely ignored by the congress. For example, the earnings of the typical low-paid worker have declined relative to high-paid workers. In 1994, individuals in the lowest 10% of wage distribution were paid 45.2% of people in the highest 10%; by 2004 the ratio had declined to 40.8%. The congress did not discuss any industrial campaigning options to increase the wages of minimum-wage workers.
ALP leader Kim Beazley addressed the congress to a standing ovation. He stated repeatedly that a Labor government would introduce a "fair" industrial relations system based on "Australian values", although he never defined Australian values.
Beazley committed a Labor government to carrying out the central elements of the ACTU's IR policy. However, he was at pains to convince delegates not to demand too much of a Labor government, or of employers, saying that "bargaining requires good faith conduct on both sides".
"You must act in good faith — whether you're an employee or employer, an industry association or a union. Under Labor's system, you'll be treated in the same way, subject to the same rules." The problem is, of course, that workers and employers are not equal; employers' control of capital gives them power over workers.
Beazley said, "Where a party acts in bad faith — employer or union — the independent umpire can step in to get them back to the negotiating table", then listed several indicators of bargaining in good faith. One was that while both parties need to respond to questions from other parties, employers must be allowed "to protect their legitimate commercial interests". This is a massive loophole for companies planning to restructure and sack workers, or move offshore or interstate.
Beazley declared: "Unlike John Howard, I won't fix all the rules to favour one side. I believe in a fair balance in the roles of employers and employees. Some would want us to tilt all the rules the other way. But I won't make that mistake." He then reinforced the point: "I will govern in the interests of all Australians, never just for the vested interests of a few; in the national interest, not sectional interests."
ACTU secretary Greg Combet supported Beazley's argument, saying, "To win government, and legitimately represent the Australian people, you must not just represent sectional interests".