Kevin Rudd's Work Choices lite


The April 27-29 ALP national conference adopted an industrial relations policy for the forthcoming federal election. Forward with Fairness confirmed Kevin Rudd's announcement on April 17 that a future ALP government would seek to enforce the Howard government's ban on all strikes outside of a recognised bargaining period and insist on secret ballots before strikes could be called.

The policy maintained Labor's commitment to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs — individual contracts), although after pressure from the mining industry bosses, Labor's IR spokesperson, Julia Gillard, was quick to assure them that AWAs could easily be replaced by a combination of flexible awards enshrining the principle of individual rates of pay and common-law individual agreements.

Labor's IR policy promises to enshrine 10 basic conditions in legislation, as opposed to Work Choices' five, adding more "family-friendly work practices". The policy removes bosses' right to average the 38-hour week over a year, adds a year to Work Choices' 12 months' unpaid parental leave entitlement, mandates flexible work hours for parents of young children, fixes annual leave entitlements at four weeks (five for shift workers), and restores the right to public holidays, community service leave, long-service leave and redundancy provisions. It also mandates employers to give new employees a "Fair Work Information statement", which will apparently clue them up on their rights at work.

Awards will be reinstated as a safety net, against which all collective agreements will be measured for fairness, in a similar manner that applied with AWAs before the introduction of Work Choices. However, this won't be a return to the pre-Howard government award system; Labor's new awards may only contain a further 10 minimum employment standards tailored to particular industries. Under Howard's Workplace Relations Act, awards were stripped back to 20 minimum conditions, and Labor is not promising to restore the stripped award conditions stripped. Labor also promises to rationalise and amalgamate awards.

Forward with Fairness advances collective bargaining as Labor's alternative to individual contracts, but only at the enterprise level. Industry-wide (pattern) bargaining is banned. And in cases where protracted industrial action may "cause significant harm to the wider economy or to the safety or welfare of the community", Fair Work Australia — Labor's replacement for the Industrial Relations Commission — " will have the power to end the industrial action and determine a settlement between the parties for their workplace." Fair Work Australia will also have the power to compel bosses to negotiate a collective agreement with their workers where a majority of those employed demand it.

Unfair dismissal provisions will be partly reinstated under a Labor government, but only after a worker in a small business (15 or fewer employees) has served a 12-month probation period, or six months for other workers. The emphasis will be on achieving workers' reinstatement, with limited compensation only for extreme cases.

This policy is similar to Howard's 1997 unfair dismissal policy and some union leaders, such as Textile Clothing and Footwear Union Victorian secretary Michele O'Neil, have been critical of Labor for forcing workers to serve a long probationary period.

Forward with Fairness explicitly accepts that "an independent umpire", giving concern to "employment growth, productivity, low inflation and downward pressure on interest rates", will set the minimum wage annually. The formula, which implicitly accepts the claim that a higher minimum wage may cause greater unemployment, practically mirrors the discredited (un)Fair Pay Commission established under Work Choices.

As the supposed fulfilment of Labor's promise to "tear-up" Work Choices, or Rudd's promise in opening the ALP national conference to "throw out Mr Howard's Work Choices laws lock, stock and barrel", Forward with Fairness is weak. On some of the worst attacks of Work Choices, such as unions' right of entry to workplaces, the policy remains silent.

Labor's policy has generated a wave of shock across the trade union movement. A range of unionists have condemned it for maintaining the Howard government's attack on the right to strike and its insistence on secret ballots before industrial action can be taken.

"The issue of the voting inside unions should be a matter decided by the membership of unions, just like the membership of any other organisation in society", Len Cooper, Victorian state secretary of the telecommunications division of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union, told Green Left Weekly. "We're opposed to state interference in what is in fact a matter for the union members themselves."

Greg Hardy, the Victorian mining and energy division district secretary for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in the Latrobe Valley, told GLW, speaking in a personal capacity: "You do need majority support before taking industrial action, but secret ballots prolong the process. They increase costs. They give the employer a great lead-time against you, even stopping the action. It's simply designed to retard workers' ability to take protected industrial action.

"Is this a fear of democracy? Definitely not. If the work force doesn't want to take action, it won't take action. This is being used to retard our ability to take action."

Unionists also condemned Labor's proposed restriction of strikes to the period of a recognised bargaining period and their threat to fine bosses who paid "strike pay". "The ILO [International Labour Organisation] convention enshrines the right to withdraw labour. It's a basic right that has merit and should be retained", Hardy said. "If it's a serious enough matter that you're prepared to go out the gate and lose pay, then that action should be respected. But if it's a case where the boss has been particularly nasty or there's a risk to life and limb, why should people lose pay for that?"

There was agreement that Labor's promise to abolish AWAs needs to be followed through without concessions to the mining industry. "The mining union is saying that the claim that abolishing AWAs will make it inefficient is nonsense and therefore there is no need to make special arrangements in the mining industry", Cooper said. "But clearly the Labor Party is responding to the massive pressure coming on from the employers and really the only thing that is going to counteract that is equal and opposite pressure from working people to fight for their rights."

Labor's failure to permit industry-wide bargaining was condemned as hypocritical. "The employers are permitted to pattern bargain", Cooper said. "In Telstra, all the AWAs are virtually identical, so individual contracts are virtually pattern contracts even though they're not bargained."

The ALP has honoured its promise to abolish the building industry's police dog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission. However, the Labor policy states, "Fair Work Australia's inspectorate will have specialist divisions that can focus on persistent or unlawful behaviour in particular industries and sectors. The first divisions established will be for the building industry and hospitality industry." Does this mean that the specialist division on the construction industry will just be a watered down version of the ABCC? The Master Builders' Association has given the proposal a tick of approval.

The unionists support the call for a further national day of action against Work Choices, which also calls for a defence of the right to strike. "There is a need for a further large public action, but the unions need to be very committed to it to ensure that we do get a very big turn-out in the lead up to the federal election", Cooper said. He supports the campaign to oust the Howard government, but argues the need "to build an independent workers' mass movement supported by the community to ensure that if any of the major parties ignored the basic demands for workers' rights and the right to strike, they do so at their peril."

Cooper and Hardy joined 15 other unionists in signing a letter addressed to ALP national conference delegates (see page 7). Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden told GLW that he too signed the letter because he is concerned that every time the Howard government steps to the right and adopts more extreme anti-worker policies, the Labor Party also steps to the right, leaving the union movement and other social movements trying to justify Labor's more right-wing policy as being "a little bit better" than the Howard government policy. Then the process is repeated — Howard takes another step to the right, the Labor Party follows and unions are expected to cop it.

Gooden argued, "The union movement needs to break this cycle and campaign for workers' rights, regardless of which party is in power. Otherwise, the political agenda will shift further and further to the right with unions giving up more and more of their rights in order to get the Labor Party elected. Workers could then become very cynical about unions.

"Even the few rights that the Labor Party's policy would restore, such as through the abolition of AWAs, are in danger of being watered down as the big companies go into overdrive to convince the ALP that they have been hard done by. Unless the union movement remobilises against Work Choices and in defence of the right to strike, the bosses are likely to be the main influence on the final Labor Party industrial relations policy."

The Victorian branch committee of the CEPU has called for the formation of a "right to strike coalition" to "win the right to strike, by public opinion, direct action, or both". The committee statement says: "What sort of system is it that accepts that neither of the political parties that can reasonably expect to form government will guarantee one of the most internationally recognised, basic human and democratic rights for workers, and that is the right to strike? This cannot be tolerated."

The Victorian branch secretaries of the CEPU have called a meeting in Melbourne on May 10 for unions interested in joining a "right to strike coalition", and will then enlist wider community support. For more information, phone Len Cooper on 0438 389 302.