New ACTU IR policy: Is it enough?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Ever since the federal Coalition government introduced Work Choices, the trade union movement has been united behind the demand that the legislation be repealed. The debate has been over what alternative industrial relations system the movement should advocate.

On September 13, Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Greg Combet released the draft industrial relations policy to be debated at the ACTU congress on October 24-25. Once a policy is adopted, the ACTU will discuss it with the federal Labor Party, although the ACTU would have discussed it with the ALP even before announcing the draft.

The ACTU is featuring ALP leader Kim Beazley as the key speaker at the November 30 national day of protest against Howard's anti-worker laws. Apparently, Beazley will elaborate on the ALP's alternative to Work Choices in his speech, which will be broadcast to rallies around Australia via Sky Channel.

The ACTU's proposal, contained in the report A Fair Go at Work: Collective Bargaining for Australian Workers, was produced after an ACTU study tour of Britain, US, Canada and New Zealand, and consultation with European union leaders. Undoubtedly, if the ALP won the next election and implemented the ACTU's policy in full, workers would have a lot more rights than they have under the John Howard government.

The report's summary states that the proposal for a new collective bargaining model is based on six principles: a right to representation; an obligation to bargain in good faith; a democratic voice for workers; a wide scope for collective agreements; removal of restrictions on the right to strike; and access to arbitration as a last resort.

In a September 14 interview on ABC TV's Lateline, Combet explained that the three essential principles are: if workers join a union, they are entitled to be represented; there would be an obligation on employers, unions and employees to negotiate in good faith; and where there is a difference between an employer, the employees and the union about whether there should be a collective agreement, it should be resolved by testing the majority view of the employees.

The ACTU proposal allows for non-union as well as union collective agreements. However, where a union has a member in a workplace, it would be entitled to represent the member and be a party to the agreement.

Where a union or an employer are not "bargaining in good faith", the Australian Industrial Relations Commission would be able to order good-faith bargaining. At this point, the AIRC might order that a vote be taken among the workers to determine whether the majority want a collective agreement. However, collective bargaining would be available without the involvement of the AIRC.

Employers would not be allowed to lock workers out or offer only individual contracts.

While agreement-making would predominantly continue to be at the level of a single business, employer or group of related businesses bargaining as a single business, the ACTU proposes that multi-employer collective agreements should be available. It also proposes that restrictions on the right to strike be removed and, specifically, that protected industrial action be possible during bargaining periods without the need for an outside body to conduct a secret ballot.

Workers would also be allowed to take protected industrial action during the life of an agreement to enable them to promote their social and economic views, and to take action around occupational health and safety issues or when an employer proposes significant organisational change.

While the ACTU advocates the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements, it accepts that common law individual agreements will continue and does not propose to interfere with them.

The ACTU's collective bargaining model would be underpinned by a safety net of pay and conditions, above which collective bargaining can take place. The safety net would be contained in awards and/or legislation that can be adjusted to take account of community or industry standards.

While the ACTU's policy is an advance, there remain some major flaws.

The policy is premised on enterprise bargaining as the means by which workers can advance their pay and conditions. It does not consider a return to industry-wide bargaining, which was dumped by the Bob Hawke-Paul Keating Labor government in order to end a system wherein advances won by strong unions through industrial action would flow on to industrially weaker unions.

Ever since the Keating government introduced enterprise bargaining in 1994, the income inequality between non-unionised workers and those who are well enough organised to win wage increases. Under enterprise bargaining, unions have been prevented from taking industry-wide industrial action to lift award rates of pay, and workers on the minimum wage have received only tiny pay increases. Without a return to industry-wide bargaining, the most marginalised workers will continue to languish on low wages and find it difficult to organise.

Another problem with the ACTU proposal is the penalties against unions, employers and employees for not "bargaining in good faith", which is not clearly defined. If a union refuses to negotiate on a particularly obnoxious employer proposal, will it be considered to not be bargaining in good faith? If a union campaigns for something that an employer refuses to consider, such as a shorter working week, will that union be considered not to be bargaining in good faith?

We should have no illusions that this "good faith bargaining" clause would not be used against unions as well as employers: it was a federal Labor government that deregistered the Builders Labourers Federation and used air force scabs to break an airline pilots' strike.

The only way to force employers to negotiate in good faith is to remove all restrictions on workers' right to organise and take industrial action. While the ACTU proposal advocates the removal of restrictions on the right to strike, it is silent about repealing those sections of the Trade Practices Act that ban unions from taking secondary boycott industrial action.

The ACTU's acceptance of common law individual contracts is also problematic. In the mining industry, these agreements were used to lure workers out of unions by initially offering a higher wage on individual contracts. Over time, working conditions declined.

The underlying premise of the ACTU's policy is that the system must be "fair" to bot employers and workers. However, that ignores how the capitalist system works.

If workers improve their wages and conditions, it is at the expense of employers' profits. If employers drive down wages and conditions, they can improve their profits. That is why Australia's big capitalists are putting a lot of pressure on the ALP to not repeal Work Choices when it next wins government.

However, the ALP has also felt a lot of pressure to adopt a pro-worker policy from the mass union protests. The question is, which side will it choose?

The Labor Party has already announced that it will set up a council of business advisors, with special access to cabinet, if it wins federal government. Having the Business Council of Australia and Rio Tinto virtually sitting in a Labor cabinet should ring loud alarm bells for unionists and all workers.

The only way that the union movement can ensure that a Labor government does anything progressive for workers, or that the Howard government is forced to back down, is to seriously increase its campaigning against the anti-worker laws with mass protests and industrial action.

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