With his April 17 speech to the National Press Club, federal Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd launched a pre-emptive strike against all those unionists, including ALP members, who thought that the April 27-29 ALP national conference would be debating a new industrial relations policy to replace the Howard government's hated Work Choices legislation.
In an address designed to placate Australian business, Rudd announced a policy that will not "tear up" Work Choices but retain significant parts of it. There are just a few sops for workers — the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), some tightening of unfair dismissal provisions, and restoration of some basic conditions like penalty rates, overtime and public holiday pay.
Rudd's policy attacks workers' most basic right — the right to strike. Workers will only be allowed to take industrial action in the bargaining period for a new enterprise agreement.
The policy only allows legal industrial action after a secret ballot conducted by an independent body. It can take weeks to get "the umpire" to hold a secret ballot, giving employers plenty of time to stockpile goods or contract out work to weather industrial action. Moreover, even this right to protected action will not be automatic — the employer will have a right of appeal against union applications for a strike ballot.
Employers will be able to carry out whatever practices they like during the course of an agreement — victimise delegates, restructure the workplace to eliminate penalty rates, maintain unsafe work sites — and workers won't be allowed to strike in their own defence.
There is no mention in Rudd's policy of any penalty on employers for locking workers out of their jobs or replacing them with underpaid workers. And no matter how just the cause of a strike, the boss won't be paying for it — strike pay is outlawed.
Rudd says "employees … will not be able to strike in support of an industry-wide agreement". This means that workers in weakly organised workplaces will continue as second-class citizens on minimum wages and conditions. Any union that tries to improve the position of workers in such workplaces will be threatened with penalties. This breaches the ALP's own policy and international labour standards.
Rudd's policy will reinstate unfair dismissal laws, but only after workers serve a lengthy probation — 12 months for workers in businesses with 15 employees or less, and six months for workers in larger businesses. Ruthless employers will sack workers just before their probation runs out.
Rudd's speech was silent on critically important questions, including:
•Rudd maintains Kim Beazley's commitment to abolish AWAs, however, will this also mean the full restoration of the minimum conditions destroyed by Work Choices or only a slight increase on the current five minimum conditions?
•Work Choices is aimed at killing union organisers' right of entry into workplaces. Will this right be restored?
Rudd's speech has betrayed the thousands of unionists and others who have campaigned for a Labor victory because of its stated commitment to rip up Work Choices. His speech confirms just how little Australian workers can trust the promises of politicians from the two major parties.
Just as bad, however, has been the endorsement of the new policy by Australian Council of Trade Unions president Sharan Burrow and ACTU secretary Greg Combet. Their backing shows that they are more committed to Labor's electoral fortunes than to the rights of working people.
The ACTU is running a campaign to send emails to Rudd and IR shadow minister Julia Gillard to make a "fair and democratic" IR policy (visit
The union movement also needs to immediately plan to mobilise for the repeal of the Coalition's anti-worker laws and the full restoration of workers' rights. For its part, the Socialist Alliance will fight for the broad union and community alliance that has powered the fight against Work Choices to also reject Rudd's diluted version of the laws.
The Socialist Alliance has, along with active unionists and union leaders, helped build the protest movement against Howard's laws and supported the union-community pickets that have stopped their implementation on many work sites. The Socialist Alliance will continue to do all it can to continue this vital struggle.