The Howard government's anti-worker Work Choices laws have placed a powerful weapon in the hands of bosses, which they are using to drive down wages and eliminate hard-won conditions. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics released on November 16 showed that average weekly earnings for full-time workers had fallen by 1.2% in real terms since Work Choices became law — an average loss of $13 a week.
The loss of overtime, penalty rates and bonus payments for many workers is a direct result of the new laws. Two-thirds (63%) of individual contracts (AWAs) registered under the new laws abolish penalty rates, a third cut overtime pay, half get rid of shift allowances and another third do away with public holiday payments. The result is that real weekly earnings for workers are falling at a time when prices, including the cost of mortgages as a result of the increases in interest rates, are rising. No wonder Howard refused to guarantee that no worker would be worse off under the new IR laws.
If the Howard government and the bosses are allowed to get their way, the situation will only deteriorate. Yet since the failure on November 14 of the state governments' High Court challenge to Work Choices, union leaders and Labor politicians have argued that the only way to defeat Howard's laws is to elect a federal Labor government at next year's polls.
"The only way now for Australian working families to get some, and to create a fairer system of industrial relations is by voting the Howard government out", Greg Combet, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said on November 14. "These laws need to be torn up and replaced with a fairer system that protects people against being sacked unfairly, provides workers with a decent safety-net of minimum pay and conditions and gives workers a right to bargain collectively", he added.
At the NSW ALP state conference on June 11, federal Labor leader Kim Beazley committed a future Labor government to scrapping AWAs. He promised that a Labor government would deliver "a land of decency and fairness". But he also reassured Rio Tinto and other mining bosses that their common law individual agreements could be retained.
Labor has also said that, in government, it would repeal the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (BCII) Act, and abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission together with its draconian powers to force building workers to answer questions at secret interrogations, or face six months' jail.
These promises are welcomed. However it should not be forgotten that Labor, while opposing the introduction of "welfare to work" legislation in parliament, has refused to commit to abolishing that package. This law forces single parents with children as young as eight and disabled people deemed able to work at last 15 hours a week back into the work force. It forces a range of vulnerable workers to accept low-wage jobs with poor conditions, or be kicked off welfare. Single parents and the disabled will not be able to refuse a job on an AWA, where the wages and conditions are worse than the award. A refusal risks the loss of benefits for eight weeks.
Beazley described the impact of this pernicious law as a "double whammy" on November 8, 2005. He said it would force single parents "into the workplace when they're doing another vital job to our community and that is bringing up kids". Nevertheless, he refuses to commit Labor to repeal it.
Labor has given unconditional support to Howard's undemocratic and repressive "anti-terror" laws which have massively expanded the powers of Australia's secret police apparatus. The laws have been used by the PM John Howard to scapegoat the Muslim community and divert attention away from the attacks on workers' rights. The sedition provisions are so broad that civil rights activists, including trade unionists, could be caught up in their net and face up to seven years' jail. Howard's aim is to divide working people on the basis of their ethnic background, and for these reasons as well they must be rejected.
Labor's commitment to scrap Work Choices and the BCII Act is good news. But history tells us that it would be foolish to think that voting Labor in will automatically solve the problems. As the record of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments shows, it was the policies enacted and carried out under federal Labor that paved the way for the king-hit IR legislation Howard was able to introduce.
Labor in power
Under the Labor government's Prices and Incomes Accord, from 1983 until federal Labor's defeat in 1996, real wages fell by 17-28%. In 1990, then PM Paul Keating boasted that the Accord had reduced real unit labour costs by 14%. The share of wages and salaries in national income fell from 74% to 63.3% in the first seven years of the Accord. Meanwhile profit's share rose from 26% to 36.7%.
Labor also failed to keep its promise to repeal the anti-union laws introduced by the previous Liberal-National Fraser government. Notably, it claimed it was unable to repeal sections 45 D and E of the Trade Practices Act — provisions that prohibit unions from carrying on solidarity industrial action (so-called secondary boycotts) and make them subject to damages claims from companies if they do. The Labor government also brutally attacked the Builders Labourers Federation in 1986 and the Australian Federation of Air Pilots in 1989 when these unions demanded catch-up wage claims to make up for real wages lost under the Accord and the Fraser government's wage freeze.
It was also Labor that introduced enterprise bargaining in 1990. Under Keating's leadership, Labor moved to significantly deregulate the industrial relations system, ending central wage fixing, and imposing a 14-month wage freeze. By Labor's defeat in March 1996, only a minority of workers were able to strike enterprise bargains, and most workers had not had even a nominal wage rise in nearly six years.
Trade union membership also fell under Labor, from 51% in 1981 to 39.6% in 1992. The decline continued, with union membership slumping to 22.4% in 2005 and only climbing again in the wake of unions' response to Work Choices. It was on the basis of this weakened union movement, drilled to expect ongoing deregulation and enterprise bargaining, that the Howard government introduced its Workplace Relations Act in 1996 and Work Choices this March.
Historically, the union movement has responded to attacks from conservative governments by fighting. In 1980, for instance, the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union met the challenge of the end of the long economic boom by demanding a $57 a week wage increase and a 35-hour working week, campaigning under the slogan "Let's have shorter hours and more jobs!". In 1969, a well-planned and coordinated campaign of strike action freed jailed unionist Clarrie O'Shea, rendering inoperable the penal powers the Menzies government had introduced against unions. In 1998, union and community pickets defeated the Howard government's attempt to smash the Maritime Union of Australia in the Patrick dispute.
The lessons from history are clear. While Labor's promise to scrap at least some of the worst of Howard's IR laws is a good first step, it will have to be held to this promise, pushed to go further. Working people cannot afford their unions to be drawn into a mono-focused and uncritical "vote Labor" campaign.
Howard's rule for the rich must be stopped. Howard and his laws must be scrapped. But only a union movement that is prepared to exercise its industrial muscle in defence of workers' rights and be scrupulous about its political independence, will have the power to force a Labor government to follow through on its promises. It is also the only force that can stop the Howard government from pushing ahead with plans to push through further IR attacks, and stop the bosses from using their new stick to beat us all with.