In an interview with the Australian Financial Review on September 17, Jeff Lawrence, the new secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), said that under a Rudd Labor government, unions would seek to engage constructively with businesses and employer groups. "There won't be any targeting of employers who have used AWAs [individual contracts] ... I specifically rule that out", he said.
He argued Labor's focus on collective bargaining based on enterprises and an adjusted safety net for the lower paid would not fuel inflation, while conceding the new system would lead to "more bargaining areas" for unions.
"The reality is that the industrial system, the economy, is decentralised and is not going to change. The focus of Labor's system is going to be enterprise bargaining on the one hand, and then one of adjusting the safety net to make sure that it's up to date", he said.
Lawrence acknowledged that this meant pay claims were less able to flow between enterprises in the same industry or to different sectors than in the past, while the new national workplace regulator would take broad economic effects into account when adjusting the safety net for the low-paid.
Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden gave Green Left Weekly his response to Lawrence's comments.
"I didn't expect Jeff Lawrence to say that we're going to give the bosses a kicking before the election. But one would hope that he doesn't mean that the union movement will do nothing after the elections to win things back.
"Given the ACTU's track record during the '80s and '90s, there is a potential that what Lawrence told the [Australian] Financial Review isn't just pre-election words to help Labor get elected, but the ACTU's actual position", Gooden said.
"I think it's very foolish to be making the ruling class any promises at all, because they've made us none, other than that they will continue with individual contracts, they'll continue to lock unions out, they'll continue to prosecute workers. That's the promise of the employers, so I would expect union leaders to be making a promise that they will defend their members' conditions and in fact campaign to improve them, and make the bosses no promises at all.
"For a start we've got to win the existing ACTU policy. The ALP isn't even coming half-way to the table there. And then we need to improve on it. And we're not going to get it without putting up a fight.
"Another problem I have with Lawrence's comments", Gooden continued, "is his apparent acceptance that there are two classes of workers: ones with the strength to win enterprise bargaining agreements and others who survive on the safety net for the low paid.
"What he has to accept is that unions have one type of member, a rank and file union member who has the same rights and expectations as every other member. A union secretary has one obligation and that is to look after all their members, regardless of where they work, what the legal system is, or what the enterprise bargaining system is. We have to operate on the principle of all workers being treated equally. All our members should get the same protection. If that means the union needs to carry out an across-the-board industrial campaign to win the same protection for all workers, then so be it."