Change the rules for workers' rights

It is a basic right of working people to organise collectively through our unions

We own our own labour and should have the right to control our labour by organising collectively through our unions. Workers and our unions should not be prosecuted or penalised for organising our labour.

Our current industrial laws are anti worker, anti union and simply unjust and make it harder for workers to organise to defend our wages, conditions and living standards. 

 A campaign to change these laws is a must. The Change the Rules campaign is an opportunity to talk about the rights we need as workers and how to win them (back).

The research is clear — working people are losing out, while the big end of town is doing better than ever. Talking points are useful campaign tools, but the conversation needs to be about more than just convincing workers the system is broken and needs to be changed via the ballot box.

It is not enough for workers to feel angry and then vote for a new government in the hope it will change the laws. We’ve been down that road before. We remember Work Choices Lite and we cannot give Labor a blank cheque.

We want a commitment from Labor and any party that seeks government that it will restore and extend our workplace rights and protect our living standards.

The bosses will continue to push any new government to further restrict our rights, lower our wages and strip our conditions. They do this to boost their profits at the expense of our wages and living standards. The wages share of national wealth is at its lowest point in 50 years, while profits are booming. Australia now has 33 billionaires but wages are stagnating. In the so-called “lucky country” the wealth gap between rich and poor is widening.

We need a nationally coordinated industrial campaign to regain our share of the wealth we create, to raise key demands for a new government and to hold that government to account.

This is not an exhaustive list, but unless we win these basic demands, the bosses and big corporations will continue to have the upper hand.

1. Restore the right of union access/right to organise on the job without penalties or restrictions. Workers should be able to organise and seek support from their union at the workplace at any time, without restriction or penalty.

2. Remove the fines and sanctions against workers and their unions for taking industrial action. Workers face fines of $10,000 for withdrawing their labour (even for a 2-hour stop work meeting). Fines for some unions are now in the millions — workers’ union dues are going to the government instead of being used to advance our rights at work. Meanwhile, bosses lock out and sack workers with impunity.

3. Lift award rates of pay and conditions to levels comparable with relevant enterprise bargaining outcomes. Awards have been stripped over time, and enterprise bargaining has only delivered for workers in the best organised sectors. We need to share the gains won in wages and conditions across our industries to benefit low-paid, unorganised and insecure workers.

4. Outlaw employers’ ability to terminate Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBA), putting workers on minimum award conditions. Emboldened by an anti-union government, bosses are using this as a threat and a weapon against workers during EBA negotiations and disputes, as at Murdoch University in Western Australia.

5. Reverse the cuts to penalty rates. Workers employed on weekends and public holidays should be compensated through the payment of penalty rates. Low-paid workers in hospitality and retail depend on penalty rates to pay the bills.

6. Legislate for fully-funded equal pay for early childhood, social and community service workers. The federal government has reneged on their commitment to fund equal pay for early childhood educators, some of whom earn as little as $21 an hour. These workers should be paid on an equal basis with workers in other sectors who perform skilled work after years of training.

7. Abolish all anti-union laws, such as the ABCC and the Building Construction Industry Improvement Act. When Labor rode into power on the back of the Your Rights at Work campaign, it promised to “rip up Work Choices” and get rid of the ABCC. Once in government, it only tinkered with the ABCC and left much of Work Choices intact, making it easier for the Coalition to revive its anti-worker laws. The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 must be repealed. This set of laws could be used to attack the CFMEU even after the ABCC has been abolished.

8. All workers have rights. End the exploitation and abuse of temporary visa and migrant workers. End the bosses’ exploitation of temporary visa and migrant workers by guaranteeing them access to unions, to the same wages, conditions and workplace rights as local workers and to permanent residency and citizenship. Bosses are using the vulnerability of overseas and migrant workers to increase their profits and drive down the wages and conditions of all workers. The only way to undermine this strategy is to lift all workers up to the same level, regardless of where they come from.

Australia was built by migrant workers, many of whom went on to lead unions and go into parliament. That would have never have happened under the temporary visa system. While temporary workers can be threatened with deportation, workers will continue to be exploited and Australian workers undermined in their workplaces.

9. Outlaw sham contracting, piecework, the abuse of casual employment and zero hours contracts. Secure employment is essential for workers. Underemployment, where workers struggle to work enough hours to pay the bills, is a growing problem. Sham contracting, casual and piece-work and jobs in the gig economy transfer all the risks onto workers.

10. Implement real job creation programs to lower unemployment, revive manufacturing and build much-needed public infrastructure. Our manufacturing sector is being destroyed and skills, training and apprenticeship schemes are being lost. We need to build more schools, hospitals, aged-care facilities, public housing and public transport.

We need job creation schemes that tackle the environmental and social challenges of today and provide and maintain essential social services to raise the standard of living of all. Australia has one of the highest levels of unpaid overtime in the developed world. More jobs means the work can be shared around and we can start to reduce working hours.

[Tim Gooden is the former secretary of Geelong Trades Hall, a CFMEU member, the Victorian Trade Unionist of the Year and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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