'Unfair laws should be fought'

Issue 

"I think all these unfair tribunals and all this unfairness have to be removed", Derek Belan, NSW state secretary of the National Union of Workers, told Green Left Weekly in response to Labor's release of its Forward with Fairness Policy Implementation Plan in late August. "If Labor is elected, people are voting that they don't want this stuff. There is a mandate to remove it. People are aware what this stuff means and people want it removed and Labor has to listen."

Union leaders across the country were outraged by federal Labor's latest watering-down of its commitment to abolish individual contracts (AWAs), as well as its failure to reverse existing Work Choices laws that severely restrict union officials' right of entry to workplaces, and ban pattern bargaining and solidarity actions.

Labor's plan will allow existing AWAs to stand for up to five years — until December 31, 2012. Labor will also permit bosses who now use AWAs to use an AWA clone, an Individual Transitional Employment Agreement (ITEA) for all new employees, with this "transitional" arrangement only expiring on December 31, 2009.

"We expect [opposition leader Kevin] Rudd and [deputy leader Julia] Gillard to carry out what their platform was originally and that was to get rid of AWAs completely", Chris Cain, Western Australian secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) told GLW. "We also understand that Mr Rudd has got to take a stronger stance with respect to areas of collective bargaining and that would be the way we would hope to see the ALP go forward in their fight to get elected."

Dick Williams, Queensland state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), also expressed outrage with Labor's AWA policy. "We are opposed to the AWAs in any form and on that basis we believe that the original Labor policy of tearing them up and throwing them in the bin was the correct Labor policy", he told GLW. "We think that all forms of AWAs, including the slightly watered down version being touted by the ALP, should be done away with."

MUA Sydney branch secretary Warren Smith agreed. "In terms of AWAs, our simple position is that they need to be abolished: nothing more, nothing less. We're not really interested in a transition period. I can understand the politics behind it from an ALP point of view, but we oppose it. AWAs, as has been stated from day one, should be abolished."

Labor's plan does not stop at AWAs, however. In the interest of achieving greater "flexibility" in the workplace, it will also allow individual employees to negotiate with their bosses to trade conditions, including penalty rates for overtime, leave loading, meal breaks, allowances or other benefits, against a fixed monetary amount. Workers earning over $100,000 a year will lose award entitlements completely.

"The union movement for hundreds of years has fought for overtime penalty rates and we continue to fight for overtime to be paid at the appropriate rate: a penalty rate", Cain said. "This is just another ploy by employers, the big end of town, in respect of what they want for workers. If this does take place then workers will be working a flat rate of pay and doing up to 80 hours a week, so we consider this to be deplorable."

Williams was incensed by Labor's plan to dump workers who earned more than $100,000 a year from awards. "A significant percentage of members of the ETU earn in excess of $100,000 in ordinary time earnings, which includes overtime, penalties and allowances. Under the Labor policy what would effectively occur would be that these workers become award free and that's a disgrace and shouldn't be allowed to happen."

Smith rejected the entire framework of individuals being forced to trade conditions for better pay. "The concerning thing for me is this idea of flexibility clauses within collective agreements", he told GLW. "We are extremely concerned with this; it's inherently anti-union. Employers will use this as a means to divide and conquer
within workplaces … Trade-offs are a concept that comes from a [Prices and Incomes] Accord mentality that's done its day and should be consigned to the dustbin of history like Work Choices."

Smith went on to condemn Labor's retention of the Coalition's
right of entry laws and restrictions on solidarity (secondary boycott) actions. "Working people deserve to have their unions. The right of entry provisions for people on the job to have access to their union is a fundamental right and we disagree with any restriction on right of entry provisions at all."

Williams saw Labor's commitment to secondary boycott laws as a betrayal. "We have been opposed to the secondary boycott provisions since they were introduced by the Fraser government", he said. "It's ironic that we are now faced with the prospect of a federal Labor government who are saying quite clearly that they are going to keep sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act and that's an absolutely tragic situation."

Belan also rejected Labor's proposals to ban pattern bargaining. "Workers should be able to bargain in whatever way gives them the best result, as employers are able to bargain in whatever way gives them the best result", he said. "So whether that's collective bargaining, or pattern bargaining, or whatever other bargaining, that should be allowed."

Cain also argued that the right to pattern bargain was fundamental for workers. "The Liberal government is trying to get all the resources of the union movement to bargain with individual employers", he explained. "In our industry, that would mean that if we've got 100 vessels, or 100 different companies we would have to go and bargain with each company
individually, which takes time, money and resources. So it's there to break the unions."

Williams stressed his members' disappointment with Labor's proposal to keep the Australian Building and Construction Commission until 2010 and then to replace it with a similar body. " And what's this about? Is this about ensuring that unions can't do their job? That would be the wrong conclusion and again the ETU is opposed to that", he declared.

While keen to see an end to over 11 years of Howard government attacks on workers' rights, union leaders across three states were also committed to taking the struggle to the streets, in the way that the Building Industry Group of unions in Victoria is doing with its mass protest planned for September 26. They agreed that mass protest was needed both in the lead-up to the election, but also after the election, as a way of placing pressure on the new government — be it Liberal or Labor.

"We need to keep the pressure on the Liberal Party in the run up to the elections", Cain told GLW. "The main issue in the coming elections for working class people is Work Choices. After the election we need to keep the pressure on a Labor government to make sure that they do what they committed to do in the first place and not backtrack like they seem to be doing lately."

Belan also backed the calling of a mass rally in NSW in the lead-up to the election. "I think we should have a rally in NSW to make sure that workers' voices are heard", he said. "I think to pressure Labor, but also to highlight the unfairness of these laws. If Labor doesn't win, we'll still have to fight these laws. Regardless of who's in government,
unfair laws should be fought."

Williams also supported mass street protests. "The ETU always supports mass protest action over Work Choices. We have consistently played a leading role in Queensland", he said. In conjunction with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, the ETU is planning a mass protest at Yatala brewery in early October.

As for pressuring a Labor government, should it be elected, Williams said that "The position of the ETU is that should Rudd be elected, then the real debate will start within the Labor Party and the ETU will be a part of that debate. But in addition to that we will be more than happy to take that protest to the streets to make our members aware and make
politicians aware more generally that their position is not the right policy."

Union leaders were not willing to give Labor a blank cheque, even in the run-up to the election, however. "If Kevin Rudd thinks that he has the trade union vote sown up then he's sadly mistaken", said Williams. "Our members are clearly telling us that they're not happy with the policy of the Labor Party, it is too close to Work Choices. The bottom line is that our members have to decide who they're going to vote for based on all the information and when you have a policy that is so closely aligned with the current Work Choices legislation then it makes it very difficult for our members to come and out and say that they support the Labor Party and I suspect that a significant number of them will be looking for alternative parties to vote for."

Smith agreed. "Yes, we're definitely about the defeat of the Howard government", he said. "But the struggle doesn't end there. The struggle ends when working people have a better set of laws put in place and Work Choices is repealed and put in the bin. Now if that means that we have to continue to put pressure on an incoming Labor government then our view is that we'll be part of that struggle because it's not just about getting rid of Howard."

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