ALP leader Kevin Rudd's industrial relations policies, outlined in an April 17 speech to the National Press Club, have caused great concern among many trade unionists because they echo many of the anti-worker provisions in the federal government's Work Choices laws.
Commenting on Rudd's proposal that strikes be limited to "protected periods" after the expiry of agreements and then only after a secret ballot, Victorian state secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFUA), Michelle O'Neil told Green Left Weekly that her union is "opposed to any restriction of right to strike … Secret ballots disadvantage many workers, especially those from non-English speaking backgrounds, adding an extra level of bureaucracy to what should be managed by workers in the workplace." Secret ballots also delay strike action by weeks, she added, allowing bosses to stockpile materials and organise scab labour.
Other limitations on the right to strike would ban workers from striking in solidarity with other workers and participating in political protest. Victorian Electrical Trades Union state secretary Dean Mighell said that this "breaches International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and fundamental human rights. The workers' only right is to withdraw labour … workers under Rudd should have the right to stop work to attend political demonstrations without fear of the sack." Given that the ALP has condemned Howard's attacks on workers' rights, it would be "gross hypocrisy for a Labor government to impose the same limitations", he added.
Rudd's policy would also prohibit industry-wide (pattern) bargaining. According to Mighell, this also breaches the ILO convention and is "a disgrace." In the industries covered by the TCFUA, O'Neil said, participating in pattern bargaining "is a critical part of workers' ability to improve their conditions".
So far, Rudd has dismissed trade unionists' concerns. On April 19, he said on ABC radio that unions need to "get used to the new realities of the 21st century". In response, Victorian Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) organiser Chris Spindler told GLW, "Being in the 21st century doesn't mean being anti-union". Issues such as unfair dismissal and the right to strike are "really important to our members", he said.
Meanwhile, a motion passed unanimously by the Victorian AMWU northern district quarterly shop stewards' meeting expressed shock "that a Rudd government would keep most of Howard's Work Choices legislation, in particular the attack on the right to strike". The motion stated: "It is not fair or just that workers are only allowed to strike during the bargaining period … Rudd's announcement means that regardless of whether a Rudd or Howard government is elected, it will be illegal for workers to take industrial action in response to unfair employer practices such as victimisation of union activists, restructuring of the workplace or unsafe work practices."
The motion also condemned the limited restoration of unfair dismissal rights and called on the ALP to repeal the Coalition government's "welfare to work" laws, which "are already being used to undermine union agreements by forcing unemployed workers to sign AWAs which give away all their rights or lose unemployment benefits for eight weeks".
The motion called on the AMWU to oppose Rudd's policies at the upcoming ALP national conference and "to urgently seek support for a mobilisation of all unions for the full repeal of Howard's anti-worker laws and the full restoration of workers' rights".
Australian Council of Trade Unions president Sharan Burrow, however, said in an April 17 statement, "These announcements by Kevin Rudd will be welcomed by working families. What we are now seeing is a clear choice for voters at the next election." Many trade unionists don't agree.
O'Neil told GLW that the TCFUA would be "talking to members and other unions about what approach to take to show our opposition". Mighell said: "Unions must always be vigilant, irrespective of who's in power … a Labor government is no panacea for workers."