Bosses push AWAs, unions debate Labor government

Issue 

As employers continue to push individual Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), some union leaders have urged the labour movement to press the new Labor government of PM Kevin Rudd to move more quickly and decisively against the former government's Work Choices policy.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has highlighted the fact that AWAs have recently been offered in some universities in clear breach of existing law, not to mention without regard for the decisive election outcome.

Over the Christmas and New Year period the University of Wollongong Medical School offered new academic positions on an AWA-only basis, despite the fact the institution's legally binding enterprise agreement states that a choice must be given between the collective agreement and AWAs.

During 2007 English as a second language teachers at the Coffs Harbour campus of Southern Cross University were similarly employed, breaking a similar agreement clause. Such clauses, mandating a "genuine choice" between AWAs and collective agreements, were a compromise the union agreed to in 2005 (with some internal dissent), after the previous government had forced universities to offer AWAs on pain of reduced funding.

The NTEU has announced a formal dispute with the University of Wollongong and on January 9 its national president Carolyn Allport said in a press statement, "we are very surprised given the result of the federal election, that the university would deny new staff the right to be covered by the collective agreement. These inferior AWAs lock staff into inferior conditions of employment for five years."

On the same day an ACTU statement on the issue pointed out that Telstra, BHP-Billiton, the Commonwealth Bank and the federal government's own Australian Building and Construction Commission had all been found in recent weeks to be continuing to use AWAs.

The government is yet to put forward a detailed industrial relations policy, but has repeatedly pledged to retain all existing AWAs, as well as to retain aspects of Coalition policy such as harsh penalties for industrial action outside official bargaining periods and enforced secret ballots for industrial action.

Grahame McCulloch, NTEU national secretary, told the January 16 Australian Education Union conference, "we are disappointed the ACTU has not taken a stronger position to act [on Work Choices] … We will continue to support the ACTU campaign to the hilt, but the unions need to have a partnership with the Labor Government, while retaining their own independent stance." It was suggested in the January 16 Sydney Morning Herald that the NTEU would be taking such arguments into a January 30-February 1 meeting of union leaders.

Dean Mighell, Victorian secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, was also critical in the lead-up to this meeting. "Doing soft, sweetheart deals with any government is bad, and the worry I have is that some union leaderships are just not up for it", he told the January 26 Sydney Morning Herald. "They've never moved out of the era of closed shops and big corporate deals and into the hard grind and trench warfare of enterprise bargaining.

"Many unions sold the last election to their members on the basis that Labor is the saviour. That scared the shit out of me because I just think, well, here's another government that won't be as spiteful as the last one. But everything we did to fight under Howard, we must continue to do under Rudd. The ACTU can no longer pussyfoot around and, if the government adopts a position inconsistent with ACTU policy, they will have to go for them".

The January 17 Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that a key early test for the Rudd government was to reject the position of the NTEU. It claimed, "the business community, and the community at large, will rightly expect Labor to resist pressure from [the NTEU], or any other unions, to cut short existing AWAs".

While the attitude of the "business community", that is the corporate ruling class, is clear, repeated polls and surveys have shown that there is no hankering in the "community at large" to retain any of Work Choices or the Coalition's earlier attacks on workers and unions beyond a small right wing and pro-business minority.

For example, the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitude found that 69% of people agreed that, "awards [are] the best way to set pay and conditions" (with 14% disagreeing) and 53% of people agreed that, "individual contracts favour employer over employee" (with 15% disagreeing).

[The January 30-February 1 ACTU meeting will be reported in next week's Green Left Weekly].