Sweeping attack on NSW union rights

Wednesday, September 18, 1991

By Steve Painter

SYDNEY — In a dry run for a federal Liberal government's approach to industrial relations, the Greiner government has prepared the most sweeping attack on union rights in recent Australian history. The 333-page NSW Industrial Relations Bill, introduced to parliament at the end of August, could become law as early as the end of this month.

Although it is said to be the largest, most complex bill ever brought before the parliament, the Liberal government seems determined to push it through as quickly as possible, with minimal public debate. In a departure from previous practice, it did not supply the NSW Labour Council with a copy before introducing the bill to parliament.

Among the many attacks on workers and union rights, perhaps the most serious are:

  • the abolition of the 40-hour week. The new bill would allow employers to average the 40-hour week over a year, giving employees 60 hours' work one week and 20 the next. In this way, overtime and penalty rates could also be avoided.

  • limitations on the rights of union representatives to enter workplaces. Unions wishing to visit members on the job would have to obtain permits, after giving written notice of the visit seven days in advance and stating the reason for the visit.

  • legalisation of below-award payments to part-time workers.

  • removal of enterprise agreements from the supervision of the NSW Industrial Commission. This would clear the way for extremely exploitative "agreements" involving workers in weak bargaining positions.

  • severe penalties against unions, union officials and individual workers. For unions, fines could be between $10,000 and $100,000 daily, and for individuals, between $1000 and $10,000 daily. There are also streamlined provisions for suspension and deregistration of unions, suspension of awards, sequestration of funds and imprisonment of unionists. This section of the legislation definitely violates international conventions on the rights of labour.

Other provisions of the bill include the right of the government or any union member to call a secret ballot on any union decision at any time, with the union bearing the cost. This obviously could

cripple unions financially in a very short time.

There is also provision for employers to opt out of industry superannuation, and for employers to have veto power over choice of superannuation funds. The bill would also ban political donations by unions, and it would severely curtail maternity leave rights.

The bill would greatly reduce the powers of the industrial commission, and restrict unions' rights to take matters to the commission.

This bill is the latest of several along similar lines by the Greiner-Murray government. Previous attacks on union rights have been frustrated by the government's lack of a majority in the NSW upper house. However, the recent elections removed this obstacle, and it seems the bill will be passed.

The NSW Labour Council has called a mass protest for September 17, but this alone is unlikely to affect the government's determination to press ahead. Previous Labour Council protests against the Greiner government have been half-hearted and ineffective. There is little to suggest this will be any different.

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