Labor yet to commit on scrapping Work Choices

March 23, 2007

As the ALP's electoral fortunes lift with each new poll, unionists want to know exactly how a federal Labor government would carry out its promise to "tear up" the Coalition's anti-worker Work Choices laws.

Labor has already committed to maintaining the Individual Contractor's Act, passed (with Labor and union opposition) in December. Julia Gillard, shadow spokesperson for industrial relations, has refused to commit her party to reinstating the pre-existing unfair dismissal law, saying in February that Labor would be "mindful of the requirements of small business" when dealing with this law. Labor is also committed to maintaining the system of common law contracts to replace the Coalition's Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs or individual contracts).

Dick Williams, Queensland state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), told Green Left Weekly that his union was grappling with the ramifications of the Individual Contractor's Act. Like it or not, he said, there's now a "class" of workers who "have determined that they would prefer to work for themselves".

Williams said he has had discussions with Labor's Craig Emerson and while "not happy entirely with the answers to some questions", he agrees with Labor's proposal to amend the act to ensure that independent contractors worked no more than 80% of their time for any one employer. "That would cut off at the knees the bogus contractors currently doing the rounds in our industry", Williams said.

Joan Doyle, Victorian state secretary of the Communication Workers Union, believes Emerson is "very naive" about individual contractors with his argument that people who want to be self-employed should have that right.

Tim Gooden, secretary of the Geelong and Regional Trades Hall Council told GLW that the issue is not so much about wages but about employers off-loading costs such as superannuation, long-service leave and workers' compensation on to individual workers. "That's a doubling of the burden for working people." Commenting on Labor's solution, Gooden said, "Whatever the percentage of time [worked for one employer], some employers could use this law to break down solidarity in the workplace, dividing workers from one another and their union."

The unionists who spoke to GLW also differed over how to respond to Labor's plan to maintain common law contracts as a partial alternative to AWAs. "Common law contracts are a fact of life", Williams said. "We are happy to deal with those because common law contracts are enforceable in a court. The way the current workplace law is structured AWAs can eliminate any fair or equitable way of having a dispute resolved."

Doyle agreed that the union movement could live with common law contracts. "Some of our 'baby managers', postal managers in charge of four people, are on common law contracts which feed back into our EBA [enterprise bargaining agreement]. Those people's [contracts] are very secure, unlike those people on AWAs. Because they remain part of the collective, it's not too bad a position for them to be in."

Gooden, on the other hand, said common law contracts would help destroy collective agreements. "It's the same as any other contract", he said. "If one party breaches any part of the contract, the other party can sue for damages. To do that, you've got to go to the courts, and you're looking at $30,000 to run a case. It's only a mirage of fairness."

Gooden pointed to the 1993 Weipa dispute where Rio Tinto offered workers an extra $20,000 to sign over to common law contracts. "It broke the collective bargain, and those workers have been paying for it ever since."

Susan Price, National Tertiary Education Union branch president at the University of NSW, remains vehemently opposed to common law contracts. "Companies, like Rio Tinto, have enormous influence over the ALP, including over its industrial relations policy. Kevin Rudd and Gillard's equivocal position on AWAs, and whether to abolish individual common law contracts, is the result of this influence", she told GLW.

"The ALP-controlled unions covering heavy industry have, in many cases, tied their futures to the fortunes of the mining and manufacturing industries. This puts them in a position of balancing those interests against those of their members. Taking up the fight over AWAs will therefore depend on the more militant sections of the trade union movement, and on those unions who represent low-paid workers."

The unionists who spoke to GLW were opposed to any watering down of a restored Unfair Dismissals Act. Doyle said that anything but a complete reversal of this law would be a "disgrace". For Williams and the ETU there should be "no distinction" between whether a company employs one person or 1001 people. "All should be treated with the same dignity and rights when it comes to unfair dismissal."

Gooden said the ALP's unfair dismissals policy, released under former leader Kim Beazley, which called for the introduction of a free mediation service, was extremely weak. "The reality is that mediation remedies result from consensual agreement. If you don't agree, nothing can happen. I suspect that is what the ALP will finally offer: it might sound okay, but it'll have no teeth."

Gooden said if a future Labor government was to be held to its promise on Work Choices, the trade union movement would have to change focus away from a simple re-elect Labor campaign.

"While the [Australian Council of Trade Unions-led] Your Rights at Work campaign has been successful in focusing the spotlight on workers' rights, it needs to also focus on pushing back the bosses. If Howard is booted out this year, something I want to see happen, Labor will be under huge pressure to compromise. That much has already been made clear by ALP leaders' comments on the Independent Contractors Act and Common Law contracts.

"What's been lacking in the anti-Work Choices campaign is a focus on compelling businesses to back down. The only way unions have ever won major industrial victories is when we mount a national industrial campaign against the bosses, and eventually they end up offering a compromise, or a concession is extracted. We have to remain independent of both major parties, and run our own campaign. That's the only way we'll be in a position to hold Labor to its promise to rip up the laws."

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