Howard aims to break union power


In a major speech in Melbourne on February 25, federal employment minister Kevin Andrews revealed just what the Coalition government's agenda for industrial relations "reforms" are really all about.

Addressing the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), Andrews said, "as the Business Council of Australia recently argued, an emphasis on fairness only leads to regulatory excess and inefficiency that reduces productivity and discourages job creation".

Although Andrews didn't provide precise details about his government's proposed anti-union legislation, he did outline the general thrust of what the government plans to do. He said, PM John Howard's government will:

* Use the corporations power in the constitution to take over the state industrial relations systems and bring the 85% of employees who are covered by state awards into the federal workplace relations system. The Howard government aims to implement a single federal industrial relations system fully before the next election.

* Maintain the minimum wage but change the process by which it is set. The minimum wage would have to take into account the impact the minimum wage has on the unemployed.

* Simplify the agreement-making process and remove "third-party interference" from the process.

* Maintain awards but cut the present 20 allowable matters to 16. The four award conditions likely to disappear are long service leave, jury service leave, notice of termination and superannuation.

The goal behind these "reforms" was clearly spelt out by Andrews in his CEDA speech. Unions would still be legal, but they would be service organisations that would have no place in organising workers in workplaces to wage industrial campaigns against employers. Throughout his speech, Andrews referred to unions as "third parties" that needed to be excluded from the workplace agreement-making process — as if unions exist separately to their members.

For example, Andrews said: "Decisions as to the style of employment arrangements entered into, be they part-time, full-time, permanent or casual, or contractually based, would be left to the parties themselves at the workplace level." By "the parties themselves", Andrews means the individual workers and their employer, without the interference of unions.

If the government gets away with its proposed attack on the minimum wage, there will be a big jump in the number of working poor in Australia. Employers always use the excuse that higher wages mean they can't afford to employ more people, even when their profits are booming.

Australian capitalists are hardly experiencing hardship at the moment. The share of profits is at a historic high of 26.7% of GDP.

If the government gets away with cutting the minimum wage to "encourage employers to employ more people", we could end up in the situation like that in the US state of Kansas, where minimum wages are as low as $US2.65 ($A3.37) an hour.

What we are about to see, if we let the government implement its policy, is a massive expansion in extremely low-paid jobs.

As well as attacking the minimum wage, the government is planning to wield the big stick against people on disability pensions and sole-parent pensions, forcing them into a position where they will accept super-exploited jobs.

The government plans to give the Business Council of Australia almost everything it wants. The only demand of the BCA that hasn't been granted — yet — is the total abolition of the award system. If the government doesn't come up against widespread opposition to its presently planned attacks on unions, it is likely that it will move to go even further than it has announce so far — and implement this BCA demand.

ACTU secretary Greg Combet signalled the ACTU executive's unconditional surrender to the Howard government's planned legislative attack on unions when he told ABC TV's 7.30 Report on February 17: "You've got to deal with the system the way that it is and John Howard's laws ultimately will go through, because he does control both houses of parliament from July 1 this year. We will have to live within that system. It will be a very tough system for working people, unfortunately, but we will have to work within it. They're the cards that are dealt."

Fortunately, not all union leaders share Combet's defeatist, do-nothing approach. Militant union leaders in Victoria have forced the Victorian Trades Hall Council to call a mass delegates' meeting for March 23 to discuss organising mass resistance to the Howard's plan to break union power.

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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