Our Common Cause: Unions and umpires

March 15, 2008

The following article is abridged from a speech to the February 24 Victorian state conference of the Socialist Alliance by Geelong Trades Hall Council secretary and alliance member Tim Gooden.

Anyone of sporting mind knows exactly what the role of the umpire is. Two sides in competition, the umpire makes a decision. Yes you can appeal later, but the fight goes on until the game is finished and you have a winner.

I grew up with an understanding that the industrial umpire was formed by the 1904 Arbitration and Conciliation Act and the formation of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). The umpire was a part of the judiciary. You couldn't sack them and you couldn't influence them — in theory. You could be fined for protesting against them just as the same as any other court of law. Of course governments would stack the commission with like-minded people, which can change the nature of the decisions.

Former prime minister John Howard went further, moving some areas of industrial law from the AIRC's jurisdiction to the control of the minister. Things like the approvals of Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts) and enterprise bargaining agreements are now determined by the department of workplace relations.

The ALP's "Forward with Fairness" policy is very similar to Work Choices. The workplace ombudsman and Fair Work Australia will be very much under ministerial control. Labor is saying the only thing in industrial law that will go to the judiciary will be constitutional matters. The rest will be dealt with by the public service.

Now this may be acceptable to some people. The old system was not very good. But under Labor's proposed new industrial relations system, the "independent umpire" will in fact be far less independent then ever before.

Another concern with Labor's policy is the lack of use of word "union". I could only find the word "union" used 12 times in ALP IR policy. Eight of these were in the paragraph titled "The Role of Unions" in "Forward with Fairness". The other four relate to disciplinary action that can be taken against unions. All the examples given in ALP policy documents relate to "the employee" and "the employer". Nowhere in the examples are unions included in the process.

Now a lot of good comrades in the ALP have told to me, "Don't worry about it Tim. It's the public perspective, just a tactic; it's just in the language but what's really going on behind the scene is it will be OK in the long run." Unfortunately, I don't think that is the case. I think the government's written position is their actual position and they have no intention of changing it one bit.

It is early days and a lot of stuff is not written up in legislation yet. However, the language of Labor policy shows a continuing shift from active unionism to a situation where unions are just providing a service and individual employees can call them if they dare. Workers are left isolated with limited understanding their collective strength. This not how we have won our wages and conditions in the past. I fail to see how the new model could work in the future.

I think the trade union movement is at risk of being hoodwinked. Previous generations of unionists had to agitate and fight hard to be recognised as a legitimate political force. I think we are going to again have to agitate within the unions and in the community against the bosses to be able to maintain the role of unions. If unions don't fight this attempt by the ALP to make them irrelevant — all workers lose.

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