Australian workers are doing it tough. Wage rises have dropped to their lowest level in decades: ABS figures show average full-time wages have fallen below basic cost of living needs. Casual workers have taken an even harder hit.
It’s time to fight back and get organised. The Australian Council of Trade Unions seems to have come out of its bunker. It has called for a full blown “Change the Rules” campaign to win back our “rights at work”, lost progressively since 1996.
The present situation is the culmination of the John Howard government’s so-called first and second wave of industrial relations “reforms” of 1996–2002; the overreach of the vicious Work Choices legislation of 2004–07; followed by Labor’s far-from-adequate Fair Work Act of 2009; and the Turnbull government’s recent Registered Organisations Commission. Together, they are a “bad law” legacy that must be defeated.
Additional laws, specifically targeting building workers, must also be repealed. The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) is a particular abomination.
The Change the Rules initiative is a welcome development: it must be allowed to gain momentum in the streets and in as many workplaces as possible.
The mobilisations must not only replicate the national opposition that exponentially grew against former PM John Howard’s initial onslaughts — the attacks on the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) (1998), the building unions (2001–04) and the successful anti-WorkChoices stop work rallies (2005–07) — but it must exceed it.
Lessons from the past
Moves to redirect the campaign into letter-boxing in marginal seats in a particular election or relying on endless social media content, will see a watered down result as occurred between 2007 and 2013.
By the middle of the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard Labor governments, some within the then ACTU leadership expressed regret they had disbanded the rank-and-file workplace structures established during the historic mobilisations against Work Choices across the country.
Workers must demand their unions get out there and organise, because the movement needs to grow.
Long-term industrial relations journalist Ben Schneiders wrote a biting commentary last August, arguing that unions needed to rebuild if they were serious about getting wages’ growth. https://www.smh.com.au/business/careers/the-path-to-stronger-wages-is-stronger-unions-20170804-gxpblg.html
“New ACTU secretary Sally McManus is campaigning hard on a bid to ‘change the rules’ and says the Fair Work system is ‘broken’ — in favour of employers.
“She has a point.
“The International Labour Organisation, as far back as 2010, found the laws had numerous fundamental breaches of basic worker rights, though it’s worth noting it was the ACTU and Labor at the time that squandered the anti-WorkChoices campaign to deliver these laws.
“In the past few years employers have started to aggressively use the Fair Work Act to abandon enterprise bargaining and move workers onto the minimum pay and conditions of the award…
“Employment lawyers and companies now know they can get away with it, as Australian unions haven’t been this weak for 100 years…
“The best and most successful unions tend to be the ones that have the least to do with internal Labor machinations.”
In February, Fairfax economist Ross Gittins also slammed the unions. When reporting on the Reserve Bank expressing concern about the ongoing sluggish economy, he said that the bank was worried that because “consumer spending accounts for well over half the demand that drives economic growth”, low wages was a problem.
Having Australia’s central bank, and even some Liberal government ministers, claiming mealy-mouthed support for “wages growth”, is insulting.
For decades the conservatives have condemned unions for demanding wages and conditions’ improvements, claiming that unions are a threat to the economy for doing so.
Gittins wrote: “Workers — particularly those in industries with enterprise bargaining — are meekly accepting smaller pay rises than their employers’ circumstances could sustain because the union movement has done too little to counter the alarmists telling their members they’ve lost power to ask for more.
“Unions aren’t pushing hard enough for a decent pay rise.”
Leaving aside Gittins’ blanking out of years of anti-union laws and the spread of precarious employment, which all impact on workers’ rights, the challenges for the union movement are real.
Regaining lost ground
The Change the Rules campaign, which insists on significant changes to the multi-layered, legal straitjacket curtailing union and workers’ rights, is a positive step forward.
McManus has highlighted that weak wages, wage and superannuation theft and underpayment are the challenges coming from the Work Choices era.
In a recent ACTU circular, McManus wrote: “People are ready for change and willing to take action to make it happen ... So, in April and May let’s escalate the Change the Rules campaign and hit the streets.
“Big business has too much power, but when working people join together we are mighty and unbreakable”.
This is a far cry from the ACTU’s position after 2007, when the reactionary Howard government was thrown out of office as a direct result of the anti-Work Choices campaign. (It wasn’t due to the inane slogan “Vote Kevin 07”!)
Insultingly, this was followed by protracted, frustrating negotiations with the Gillard government over the so-called Fair Work Act 2009, while the Rudd-Gillard governments allowed Work Choices laws to continue for another two years, during which employers had an ongoing free rein.
In 2010, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found the Fair Work Act was in breach of key “rights at work” principles, just as its earlier research found in relation to the Work Choices laws.
Fair Work Act
Some of the ACTU leadership agreed to seek amendments to the Fair Work Act. It met with Gillard, via the Australian Labour Advisory Committee (ALAC), to seek changes to the law aimed at ending the continuing curse of Work Choices. It also wanted to remove the Rudd-Gillard government’s support for a separate industrial structure for the building industry.
At a 2011 ALAC meeting, ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence and other union leaders demanded amendments to the Fair Work Act including the repealing of the anti-building unions laws. This approach was supported by the ACTU Congress.
Gillard treated Lawrence with contempt, arguing that he did not come from a union of any substance so why should she take him seriously. Lawrence was still shaken by this at a union function later that day.
In 2013, the Tony Abbott government used the Rudd-Gillard version of specific anti-building unions’ legislation to resurrect the ABCC with enhanced powers.
On the 20th anniversary of the 1998 waterfront Patrick’s dispute on April 12, the MUA held a well-attended commemorative dinner.
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten gave one of the keynote speeches in which he emphasised his pro-union, pro-worker credentials. To great applause, he said: “I don’t believe there should be one [industrial] law for workers generally and a separate [industrial] law for building workers.”
There were a number of unionists in the audience that night who well remember that Shorten was a key member of the Rudd-Gillard governments that retained a separate, discriminatory law for the building industry. No one remembered him taking a stand on this important union movement issue at the time.
McManus also addressed the anniversary gathering and took the opportunity to call for a concerted effort to win new industrial relations laws.
It is important to support the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign and take McManus’ words at face value. It is unfinished business for the union movement.
It is crucial to watch out for counter-attacks by the conservatives and big business. It will also be crucial to reject any moves to co-opt any mass movement into mere electioneering.
[Brian Boyd is a former secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council and a former member of the ACTU executive.]