By Jonathan Singer
Federal industrial relations minister Peter Reith on May 6 detailed proposed "second wave" changes to industrial relations law that will further reduce workers' ability to organise industrial action and control their unions and will remove award protection of conditions.
A major proposal is to require secret ballots before strikes. Reith argues that this is a democratic measure.
In fact, it is anti-democratic in at least four ways: it interferes with the right of union members to organise their union as they see fit; it will reduce the ability of union members to present their views before other members, as they can do at mass membership or workplace meetings, when the vote on action is taken; it gives people who are not union members a greater opportunity to influence strike votes via the mass media; and it further slows the ability of union members to take industrial action, giving the employers more time to prepare countermeasures.
Secret ballots are not necessary for every democratic activity — for example, in the Australian parliament, every voting division on laws and procedure is on public view, and the members' votes are recorded. Secret ballots have been employed to get particular results, such as some protection of people from employer or police harassment for holding opposing views.
Reith also proposes that union officials be allowed to enter a workplace only after a written request from a union member employed on site has been received.
Reith's "first wave" Workplace Relations Act limited the provisions of awards, which legally establish pay rates and working conditions and are approved by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), to "20 allowable matters".
The federal government's second wave legislation will remove further conditions out of awards: jury service pay, long service leave, union picnic days and superannuation. The tally system in the meat processing industry will also be removed.
The proposed legislation would require the AIRC to make a decision on issuing anti-strike orders within 48 hours of receiving an application for one.
These orders may now also be implemented by state supreme courts. These courts proved to be more favourable to government plans during the Maritime Union dispute last year than did the Federal Court, which at present alone has this power.
Other measures proposed by Reith include shifting the power of the AIRC (to be renamed the Workplace Relations Commission) to ratify Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts) to the Office of the Employment Advocate. While the AIRC has maintained the apparent neutrality of a court, the OEA quite openly operates in support of the government's anti-union stance.
An example of the OEA's promotion of government policy is a taxpayer-funded $3 million advertising campaign for AWAs, which claims that "no employee is in any way worse off with an AWA".