By Steve Painter
From their inception several years ago, the Greiner government's attempts at industrial relations reform have correctly been seen as a blueprint for the policies of a future federal Liberal-National government.
However, until the NSW elections earlier this year, Greiner was unable to get most of his industrial relations legislation through the upper house, where a Labor-Democrat majority blocked and amended it.
That changed at the last election, which paradoxically left Greiner with a minority government in the lower house while handing him a working majority in the upper house in alliance with the far-right Fred and Elaine Nile. By failing to back Green candidate Ian Cohen, who almost unseated Nile, the NSW Labor Council created a rod for its own back and, more importantly, for the backs of all NSW trade unionists.
For the moment, some trade unions are rather complacent about the NSW Industrial Relations Bill because it applies only to workers covered by NSW awards. When unions affiliated to the Labor Council met to plan the October 23 statewide strike against the bill, many unions — white collar unions in particular — began claiming they should be exempted from the strike for a range of reasons.
Others have been more far sighted, recognising that it is only a matter of time before federally registered workers will face similar anti-union laws if the NSW bill is allowed to pass unchallenged. Mineworkers and construction workers in particular were prominent in the September one-day strike against Greiner's bill.
Using the smokescreen of workers' freedom to choose whether or not to join unions, the bill could eventually undermine the entire award system of fixing minimum wages and conditions.
For the moment, the bill leaves basic award conditions untouched. Employers may not pay less than award rates or reduce holiday pay, sick pay or long service entitlements below set levels.
However, it leaves the way open for ruthless employers to slash overtime payments, penalty rates for work on weekends and public holidays, holiday leave loadings and other hard-won conditions and entitlements.
It also undermines workers' ability to negotiate favourable award conditions by severely restricting unions' access to workplaces and negotiations.
In the long run, the erosion of other conditions and the limits on workers' ability to bargain would inevitably undermine even award conditions.
For the time being, Greiner has left award conditions alone, and is concentrating on weaknesses in the unions' position in order to win the Liberal government is concentrating on many unions' very poor record of consultation with their members in recent years.
This enables the government to sell its bill as providing greater choice for workers as to which union they should belong to, or whether they should belong to one at all. Because many workers think their unions do nothing for them, the government is hoping this appeal will find some support.
Short of directly attacking award conditions, the bill systematically attempts to stack the industrial relations odds in the employers' favour, even providing for individual agreements between companies and workers.
Under the new bill, if an employer is able to coerce a group of workers into negotiating directly, without the assistance of a union, the new law would deny the intervention of any third party. This would prevent unions making any legal intervention in the public interest.
The bill will achieve this by removing the requirement that enterprise agreements be ratified by the existing state Industrial Commission. Instead, they will simply be registered with a Commissioner for Enterprise Agreements.
At present, unions are able to intervene at the level of the Industrial Commission to ensure that agreements comply with existing awards and laws, including health and safety laws.
If this law is passed, all workers in NSW can expect attacks on their conditions, and a steady rise in industrial conflict. Already, the bill and other policies of the Greiner government have led to a wave of industrial action not seen for at least a decade.
Anti-union provisions of Greiner's IRB
- Union access to workplaces. Union organisers will no longer be entitled to enter workplaces to investigate complaints or recruit new members. They will have to give seven day's written notice of their intention to enter a workplace, and seek permission to do so.
- Hours of work. Standard hours of work will be averaged over a year, with no provision for penalty rates for working on weekends, public holidays or unusual hours. This could lead to workers having to work well over 40 hours some weeks and short hours at other times.
- Part-time work. The bill provides for individual agreements outside any award for part-time work. This could undermine full-time work, and create a large pool of workers forced to accept substandard wages, conditions and job security.
- Fines.Individual unionists will be subject to fines of up to $1000 daily for striking or taking other industrial action. Unions will be subject to even heavier fines, even if members support of the union.
- Union decisions. Employers will be able to force statewide secret ballots of union members on any union decision, with the cost to be borne by the union.
- Deregistration.Procedures for deregistration of unions will be streamlined, and all existing unions will have to seek registration within 18 months of the bill becoming law.
- Political campaigning.The bill would make it impossible for unions to support political parties or use funds for other political purposes without the agreement of each individual member. Funds for political campaigning would have to be placed in a special fund.
- Scab unions. The bill encourages workers to opt out of existing unions to join company-based and even company-sponsored unions, or even no union at all.