Howard tries to make AWA compulsory

April 20, 2005

Nick Everett, Canberra

On April 4, the secretary of the federal Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) secretary, Dr Peter Boxall, announced that all future appointments to the department would be subject to the successful applicant signing an Australian Workplace Agreement (AWA or individual contract).

Boxall, a Chicago University educated neoliberal economist, has aggressively promoted AWAs over collective bargaining as part of the federal government's push to weaken unionism both inside and outside the public service.

While AWAs have been pushed aggressively by the Howard government since the introduction of the Workplace Relations Act in 1996, this is the first time that the government has attempted to compel its own employees at all levels to sign AWAs, denying them coverage under a certified agreement.

Despite the government's aggressive promotion of AWAs, they only cover about 2% of the work force. Mining corporations have campaigned for their retention because mining is one of the few sectors where AWAs have made some inroads as a result of strong industrial tactics employed by mining companies, supported by the federal government.

In late 1995, the workers at the Weipa Bauxite mine fought mining giant Rio Tinto for three months to demand their right to a collective agreement in the face of a campaign by Rio Tinto to lure workers on to individual contracts with pay rates 15% higher than their union counterparts. Rio Tinto was eventually forced to sign a collective agreement, although only after forcing union members to concede to a system of performance based pay.

In the federal public service, AWAs have not faired as well as the government's rhetoric might suggest. According to the DEWR, as of December 31, out of 124,500 public and parliamentary service permanent staff there were 11,085 AWAs covering 1928 Senior Executive Service (SES) and 9157 other employees — a total of only 8.9% of staff. AWAs are compulsory for the SES and, in some agencies, for the executive level directly below it.

The rest of the permanent staff were covered by 101 certified agreements (as at March 30), of which 70 were LJ (union) agreements and 31 were LK (non-union) agreements.

Studies of AWAs indicate a poorer wage outcome than collective agreements, as well as a reduction in working conditions and non-wage benefits. AWAs are less likely to include penalty and overtime rates for working long and unsocial hours and commonly link pay increases to individual performance measurement.

According to the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), 47% of DEWR employees are now covered by AWAs, encouraged to do so by offers of higher pay linked to performance. Since the January 23 rejection of a management offer of a non-union certified agreement (by 78% of those who voted), DEWR management have been on the offensive in seeking to convince more employees to sign up to AWAs.

However, rather than resisting this offensive by seeking to convince its members that their collective strength lies in rejecting AWAs, the CPSU has sought to "engage" employees on AWAs by offering to assist them in negotiating a better AWA, and presenting the option of signing an AWA as simply a matter of "choice".

With new and prospective CPSU members now being denied the choice of being covered by the certified agreement when they take a job in the DEWR, the CPSU is faced with the challenge of how to turn around the decline in both its membership and collective bargaining power. The current certified agreement campaign (which could involve industrial action "protected" from legal sanction under the Workplace Relations Act) provides a window of opportunity to resist this latest move.

Such a campaign must begin to challenge the idea that AWAs are a "choice" for union members and seek to convince them that the value of unionism lies in workers' collective strength. The campaign should also demand that every worker has the right to be covered by a collective agreement and link up with CPSU members fighting the imposition of AWAs in other government agencies.

If the CPSU is to reverse its membership decline in the DEWR, it must be prepared to wage a long and hard industrial campaign to win a collective agreement all union members can be proud of. In the end, only a collective agreement that better defends pay and conditions than the DEWR management's AWAs can win back to the union those who have deserted it.

[Nick Everett is a CPSU delegate in the DEWR.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 20, 2005.
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