Softly, softly or decisive action against Howard?


Sue Bolton

The ALP is preparing a further shift to the right, at the same time as trade unions are working out how to deal with the re-elected Coalition government's impending assault on them.

As part of preparing Labor shift further to the right, ALP federal leader Mark Latham has appointed Western Australian right-wing MP Stephen Smith as shadow industry and industrial relations minister. Smith's brief is to rebuild Labor's relationship with the "business community" (an establishment media euphemism for the capitalist class), particularly on industrial relations. The signals coming from both Latham and Smith are that the big corporations will have a hand in re-writing the ALP's industrial relations policy.

According to October 29 Melbourne Age, the national leadership of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has written to Latham, expressing its concerns: "That the party has identified industrial relations as a key weakness and a reason it lost the [October 9 federal] election, is ... astounding.

"However, for the ALP to again follow the Liberal Party's political agenda in attacking workers' rights is an absolute disgrace, a cowardly scapegoating exercise that will have short and long-term ramifications for the party and sadly, for working families in Australia...

"The ALP should be defending workers and their unions against the attacks of the Liberals. Labor should not be accepting stereotypes of the union movement or capitulating to the media and business attacks on workers and their unions."

The Australian Council of Trade Unions, on the other hand, appears to have reconciled itself to Labor's impending shift toward an industrial relations policy that is closer to that of the Coalition parties, adopting a "softly, softly, wait-and-see' approach toward the Howard government's anti-union agenda.

After an ACTU special executive meeting on October 18, ACTU president Sharan Burrow told AAP that "unions will fight the Howard government's assault on the workplace, but at this point in time we don't have any plans to actually respond to the prime minister's agenda with industrial activity". She said that the ACTU would first focus on informing union members of what was on the horizon.

ACTU secretary Greg Combet corroborated this approach on ABC Radio's AM program on October 18. "The ACTU is certainly not going out to seek industrial warfare or industrial trouble, but there's certainly a lot of instability around now", Combet said. He said that over the next 12 months, the ACTU will "do surveys and research to gather informed views so that we can continue to reflect issues that matter to working people".

Combet also proposed that unions do home visits to discuss workplace issues and increase telephone contact with workers.

The fact that the two key ACTU officials are already talking like this, before Prime Minister John Howard has struck a blow, is a sign that they are prepared to accept the Coalition's industrial relations agenda — such as limiting the right of entry of union officials to workplaces — without a fight.

Already, the timid response of the ACTU has given the Howard government increased confidence to ratchet up his anti-union talk. Federal workplace relations minister Kevin Andrews told the October 16 Sydney Morning Herald that "the underlying message is that we will be careful and cautious about what we are doing". He also abandoned earlier hints that he would consider a takeover of state-based industrial relations laws because "there are constitutional limitations to what the federal parliament can do".

But after the timid response of the ACTU, by October 25, both Howard and Andrews were pushing a much harder line on what anti-union laws the government would be prepared to push for.

It is unlikely that the union movement will have until July 1 next year — when the Coalition will have a majority in the Senate — to prepare for the onslaught. Even before the federal election, Democrats workplace relations spokesperson Andrew Murray indicated the Democrats senators willingness to pass some of Howard's anti-union legislation.

Howard will make full use of his "mandate" to put pressure on the Senate to pass the anti-union legislation that it has blocked this year, so that he can move on to more draconian new anti-union laws after July 1.

Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard disputes that the Coalition has a mandate for further anti-union changes. He told the October 13 Australian Financial Review that the Coalition went to the election with a sketchy workplace relations policy. "The only mandate John Howard has is to keep interest rates low", Hubbard said.

Some unions such as the Victorian Electrical Trades Union have begun preparing for the onslaught by renegotiating enterprise agreements and extending them for a further three years.

Many unions are also hoping to shelter from the Howard government's anti-union laws by shifting from federal awards to state awards. The South Australian branch of the Australian Education Union is considering this.

The NSW, Queensland, Tasmanian, South Australian and Western Australian state Labor governments have already announced that they won't cede their state industrial relations systems to the federal government. This is an impediment to the Howard agenda, with up to 45% of workers in NSW operating under state awards.

However, Victorian workplace relations minister Rob Hulls has backed Howard's proposal for a national industrial relations system. He told the October 13 AFR: "In this era of globalisation, it is confusing for business, particularly international investors, to have to deal with six different industrial relations systems." The previous Kennett Coalition state government ceded Victoria's industrial relations system to the federal government. Since being elected in 1999, Premier Steve Bracks' Labor government has refused to reinstate the state system.

While there's nothing wrong with unions switching between industrial jurisdictions in an attempt to keep out of reach of draconian laws, the most effective protection comes through maximising the organisation of union members to resist the anti-union laws — even when it means going outside the system, especially if the federal government uses corporations law under the constitution to take over the state industrial systems. This course of action is being pushed heavily by all of the big corporations.

Some unions though, aren't putting all of their eggs in the basket of the state industrial systems. WA Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) state secretary Kevin Reynolds, told the October 13 West Australian that his union would fight any attacks on construction workers' rights, and "if that means union officials being arrested or jailed, then that's an occupational hazard".

Victorian CFMEU secretary Martin Kingham echoed this approach in October 13 Age when he said that the union would ignore moves to outlaw pattern bargaining or force unions to hold secret ballots before going on strike.

Kingham said that employers could negotiate industry-wide agreements next year in a "peaceful climate" or, by aligning themselves with the Howard government's anti-union agenda, in a climate of crippling disputes. "If the employers go down that track they will be inviting a shit fight to end all shit fights", he said. "But my money is on the common-sense approach and the security that business gets from being certain of their labour costs."

From Green Left Weekly, November 3, 2004.
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