Sue Bolton, Melbourne
During the last half of 2005, almost 3400 union-negotiated workplace agreements were certified as unions rushed to get new three-year agreements before the federal government's Work Choices legislation is enacted.
Many bosses, especially in manufacturing and higher education, are dragging out negotiations to prevent this, and government and employer organisations such as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group are advising employers to not sign new agreements but wait so they can use the new laws against unions.
Consultancies are already advertising their assistance in using Work Choices against unions. Industrial Labour Solutions, for example, has sent a letter to employers stating: "You now no longer have to submit to the proposed EBA [enterprise bargaining agreement]. In conjunction with the new IR rules we are able to fix the situation permanently and move your company outside the legislative jurisdiction of unions.
"No more EBAs. No unfair dismissals. No casuals forced into full time. No redundancies. No unions. No problems. Decreased costs.
"We operate by taking companies outside of the industrial relations regime which allows you total flexibility of your labour resource without your current restraints."
Many employers are acting provocatively, hoping to intimidate the union movement into not taking action. A current dispute in Victoria indicates what the future will be like for unions unless resistance to the new workplace laws is stepped up.
The dispute involves employees of car parts manufacturer Dana Australia at Clayton and Cheltenham. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and the National Union of Workers began negotiations over a new EBA and were presented with a 41-point plan from management that proposed: a 5% pay cut for current employees; 20% pay cut for new employees; to eliminate rostered days off; a longer wait before workers could access long-service leave; to eliminate income protection; reduced top-up payments to injured workers; to force workers to take holidays at employers' convenience; and changes to bereavement leave.
More than 200 workers protested against the agreement outside the Clayton plant on February 21.
Meanwhile, the ACTU held a meeting on February 21 that was meant to plan a campaign against the industrial relations laws, including deciding on a date for a national day of protest.
Over the last month, the ACTU received petitions signed by thousands of unionists from around Australia calling for a national stoppage against Work Choices on the day in March when the laws are enacted. However, the meeting ignored the petition and focused on a television campaign, and a campaign to get the ALP elected in the next federal election by doorknocking every house in marginal electorates.
The proposal to hold a nationwide day of protest was hotly contested. The majority of the meeting argued that there should be no mass protest until late in the year and that any protest should be limited to Sky Channel video links.
A section of the meeting, including representatives from the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), the AMWU and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, argued that there should be another national day of action in June. A decision about whether to hold such a protest was postponed until the March 7 ACTU executive meeting.
The VTHC responded to this non-decision by voting to recommend that the ACTU call a nationwide stoppage and protest in the first two weeks of June. The Geelong Trades Hall Council (GTHC) has called a delegates' meeting of all affiliates on March 1 to vote on a recommendation for action.
A mass delegates' meeting of all affiliates to the VTHC has been set for March 29 in Melbourne. If the next ACTU executive meeting doesn't call for nationwide action, it is likely that an action proposal will be put to the Melbourne delegates' meeting.
In some cities, plans are under way to ensure that the 2006 May Day marches are converted into protests against Work Choices. The NSW Transport Workers Union is planning a truck convoy to Canberra on March 12.
At this stage, no-one knows when the Work Choices legislation will be enacted. Some industrial lawyers are guessing that it will be enacted around April 1. However, Work Choices is not the only anti-union laws the government intends to introduce.
Legislation to prevent contractors from having access to the same employment protection as employees is likely to be introduced in May. The government has also begun a review of awards with a view to eliminating some altogether. Submissions from employers indicate that the award review process will also be used to massively cut wages.
GTHC secretary Tim Gooden told Green Left Weekly: "Employers are already attempting to intimidate workers with the threat of the new legislation. Unions need to threaten employers in return with the possibility of industrial action. We need the television and information campaign. But we also need a campaign of action."
From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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