Howard's third war: on workers



The October 12 release of the federal Coalition's industrial relations policy, "Choice and reward in a changing workplace", signalled the beginning of another round of attacks on workers' wages, conditions and industrial power.

There is little here that is new. In 1996, the Coalition passed the Workplace Relations Act with the assistance of the Australian Democrats. While the Democrats supported the vast majority of the union-bashing bill, they rejected some Coalition proposals. Most of these proposals have re-surfaced in the 2001 election platform, along with amendments to the act that the Coalition has attempted to move in the last few years.

The document — like the legislation already passed since 1996 — has two main aims: to make it more difficult for unions do their job and to reduce legal protection for all workers.

The most publicised "new" attack is the proposal to force all unions to conduct secret ballots before calling protected (legal) strike action. (Since 1996, industrial action is only legal when a work place is involved in negotiating a new workplace agreement.) Picture

Secret ballots have been a Coalition obsession for years, because they significantly increase a company's ability to undermine industrial action.

Secret ballots slow union responses down, giving management the opportunity to prepare for coming industrial action. Further, they allow management to use divide and rule tactics, convincing some workers that they will somehow be looked after by management.

Much strike action is taken at great personal risk, for the good of the work force as a whole — such as protecting casual or newer workers who are the first to be laid off. When prevented from knowing who voted to cancel (or avoid) action, workers are less accountable to each other for these decisions.

Far from increasing democracy, such provisions weaken the strength of the union as a body representing, and controlled by, the work force.

If such legislation was passed, it would undoubtedly affect some unions more than others. Like the abolition of automatic payroll deductions for union dues, unions which have concentrated on building understanding, support and solidarity amongst members would find it easier to organise action than unions which are run bureaucratically and with minimal membership involvement.

'Cooling off' periods

One measure that is aimed at the more militant unions, however, is a proposal buried away towards the end of the document, to allow the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to enforce "cooling off" periods in the middle of legal strike action. These periods would provide an opportunity for "conciliation or mediation".

This could play havoc with a work force's ability to force an employer to do anything.

In the recent dispute at the Revesby Metroshelf plant, for example, workers struck for over two months before forcing the company to re-employ unjustly sacked workers. If the industrial relations commission had ordered the union back to work during "mediation", it could have provided vital time for management to move stock or get urgent orders filled.

Strike action is not just a moral statement, it is an economic bargaining chip.

This provision is clearly aimed at re-winning small business support for the Coalition government, which bled following the introduction of the goods and services tax.

The Coalition's industrial relations package promises to renew the fight for small business "rights" to exploit unhindered. The key pledge is to keep trying to exempt small business altogether from unfair dismissal laws, thus leaving their workers completely at the whim of the bosses.

The government is also pledging to stop unions using state unfair dismissal laws where they offer more rights than federal laws and to index the $50 fee to lodge an unfair dismissal claim against the inflation rate.

Other proposals promise to exclude unions almost completely from defending workers in small businesses. These include abolishing any union right of entry to a small business without any union members (around 90% of businesses with less than 20 employees), increasing notice periods for all union visits and placing restrictions on requested union visits that will recruit new members to the union.

The government is also promising to fund small business' legal action against "secondary boycotts" (industrial action against a company by workers not directly employed by it, such as waterfront workers refusing to unload a particular company's stock), by enabling the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to take action for them.

Other provisions are aimed squarely at bigger end of town. One of the most insidious is to "simplify transfer of businesses between different employers". This is most likely to mean ensuring that when a boss buys a new company, even if production never ceases, the workers will not be able to carry over their entitlements, such as accrued long service leave and redundancy provisions.

The government has also promised to stop pattern bargaining, whereby unions use victories in one workplace to force concessions from other employers in the industry.

Pattern bargaining has been extensively employed by unions such as the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union to maintain the advantages of collective bargaining in a system designed to destroy it.

Labor response

The response of the ALP to the package has been abysmal. Neither shadow industrial relations minister Arch Bevis nor Kim Beazley have paid much attention to challenging the Coalition's proposals.

Worse, the ALP has not even guaranteed to repeal the Workplace Relations Act, concentrating instead on particular aspects of it.

The ALP's chief focus has been on Australian Workplace Agreements, which provide employers with the opportunity to negotiate individual contracts with employees, without revealing the details to other employees or even to the industrial relations commission.

Despite AWAs being implemented by the government at all levels of the public service, less than 4% of workers are covered by them.

Noting the low take-up rate, the Coalition's package includes increased public spending on promoting AWAs to employers, and removing the current safety-net provision that employees in "similar" circumstances must be offered the same AWA.

While the ALP is promising to abolish AWAs, it refuses to also abolish common law individual contracts. Such contracts differ from AWAs only in that they must be ratified by the industrial relations commission, and therefore guarantee at least award conditions.

But award conditions have been significantly undermined by over a decade of government moves away from collective bargaining. Industrial awards represent one of the strongest forms of collective bargaining: conditions are set by the work force as a whole.

Militant union struggle to increase and defend awards has delivered the best results for workers in Australian history, and most effectively ensured that low-paid workers are protected.

This system was first undermined by the ALP government in the 1990s, when it introduced enterprise bargaining, reducing many struggles to individual companies and allowing less well-organised workers to suffer.

Industrial awards were seen as a "safety net", not as a standard guaranteeing a decent life for workers. Under enterprise bargaining, for example, the ratio of female to male pay fell for the first time since 1970.

The Coalition's attempts to bring pay and conditions negotiations down to the workplace or individual level is just an extension of ALP policy. And that policy has not changed. Kim Beazley's "Plan for Job Security" states: "The enterprise will continue to be the desirable level at which to negotiate agreements."

Although promising to introduce "good faith bargaining", including increasing the rights of unions to be involved, the ALP has not specified whether it will remove present restrictions on union officials entry to work sites.

Secondary boycotts

The Coalition is also claiming that if the ALP is elected, it will not ban unions from undertaking secondary boycotts. This is, unfortunately, false.

The ALP has consistently supported legislation which punishes unions for taking industrial action in solidarity with another union or in defence of the community. In Victoria, the state Labor government has threatened to prosecute the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union for exactly such actions.

Secondary boycotts are an essential protection. They enable workers to take action to protect the environment, as the Australian Workers Union recently tried to do in Victoria to protect the Merri Creek area.

They also enable workers to act in solidarity with workers in another union, making it more difficult for the offending company to transport or sell its products. Banning secondary boycotts is simply another way of diminishing the only strength workers have: collective action.

Even worse than the ALP is the industrial relations policy of the Australian Democrats'. Far from repudiating their decision to pass the Workplace Relations Act, the Democrats have re-asserted their intention to play umpire between the unions and the Coalition.

The Coalition government has made much recently of figures indicating an increase in wages in the last six years. What they have made much less of, however, is the dramatic loss of conditions which has accompanied it.

One of the biggest dangers in individual, or even enterprise, bargaining is the tendency for workers to be convinced to trade conditions such as maternity leave or compassionate leave for a little more cash in the hand.

Once conditions have been lost, it is easier for employers to push wages down as well. Full-time Australian workers, for example, are now working some of the longest (unpaid) hours in the world, while a record proportion of the work force has access only to casual or part time work.

To regain lost conditions, it is essential to defend union rights. While the major parties are plotting to weaken the unions, the Socialist Alliance's platform states: "Every worker should have the right to join a union and oblige their employer to recognise and negotiate with that union. Unions should have the right to gain access to workplaces, to inspect company plans and books, to strike, to picket effectively and to act in solidarity with other unions or social causes."

And that is the only "fair" way to protect the working majority.