Should we join the Fair Employers Campaign?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Unions NSW is promoting a campaign, including shopfront stickers and advertising in union journals, to encourage small businesses to promote themselves as union-endorsed "fair employers". The union body is spending time and money on advertising through union journals. But this campaign detracts from our efforts at mobilising workers and the community against Work Choices and bosses who use these new laws.

The idea was prompted after small business owners told Unions NSW representatives during its regional road trip that they did not relish a race to the bottom to compete with other businesses.

The union body is urging small businesses to sign up to a statement, after which they will be given a sticker with the Unions NSW logo, and unions will be asked to advertise the company as a preferred business.

Unions NSW has asked local Your Rights at Work committees to sign up small businesses in their area, and the Inner West and Parramatta YRaW groups have decided to endorse the campaign.

When we're facing such an across-the-board attack — Work Choices, Building Industry Improvement Act and welfare to work laws — it is essential the union movement seeks as many allies as possible. That means working with welfare groups, school and community organisations, and peace, environment and social justice movements to both explain the ramification of the laws, and involve them in the campaign to defend all workers' rights. The targeting of sport and recreation clubs to explain that Work Choices could mean less time for volunteers, as Unions NSW is doing, is just the beginning.

The work needed to build broad support for the union campaign is important. But it cannot substitute for mobilising workers, supporting those in dispute and encouraging workers to take action at their workplaces to defend rights and conditions.

Right now devoting resources to a campaign to promote "fair" employers is a waste of our precious time, and resources. But more importantly, a union campaign to promote businesses as "fair" can be quite misleading.

The 2003 ACTU congress was addressed by Qantas chairperson Margaret Jackson and Autoliv boss Cheryl Woolard because they represented "union-friendly companies" implementing some affirmative action policies. Yet, while Jackson was addressing the congress, Qantas launched a major attack on baggage handlers at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport. The women workers at Autoliv were also involved in a major industrial dispute with their company over their rights.

The Unions NSW campaign allows for small business owners to be signed up to the Fair Employer Campaign even though they have not committed to meeting the needs of the workers. Bosses have to agree that they will maintain "fair" employment conditions; abide by employment-related laws; not introduce individual agreements (AWAs); respect the right to join a union; not convert employees to individual contractors; and endeavour to deal with employees fairly.

A simple, and not legally binding, signature on the dotted line on a piece of paper is all it takes for an employer to be described as "fair". The relevant union is not approached to gauge whether it has had trouble with that employer, and the workers from that company are not asked for their input.

Unions NSW says that if employers who sign up as "Fair Employers" have a dispute with their workers, they will be taken off the fair employer lists. How much pressure is this really going to exert? And what do workers, who have a problem with their boss, do if their enterprise has been endorsed by Unions NSW as a "fair employer"?

We need to throw out this rotten Howard government, but the only way we have of making sure that Labor does scrap Work Choices if it's elected is to build a strong enough union and community campaign to keep up the pressure on it. Right now, there's a yawning gap between the willingness of the community to get involved in the campaign against Work Choices and its ability to do so. This has to be Unions NSW's first priority.

[Liam Mitchell is a member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and Workers Solidarity in NSW.]

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