Unionists call for Work Choices' complete abolition

Issue 

The November 24 rout of the Howard government owed much to the work of the organised labour movement. Of the marginal Coalition seats targeted by the Your Rights at Work (YRAW) campaign, 20 of 24 have fallen to Labor (including John Howard's own seat of Bennelong); the other four remain in doubt. Most of those who voted for Labor did so believing that Labor would abolish Work Choices, as promised by Kevin Rudd on October 14, the official start to the election campaign. Yet Labor's industrial relations policy — Forward with Fairness — promises only minimal changes, replacing the Coalition's legislation with "Work Choices Lite".

In Rudd's November 24 victory speech, the PM-elect said that he wanted "to put the old battles aside — the old battles between business and unions". His only commitment on workers' rights was to "get the balance right" between fairness and productivity at the workplace.

As the Liberal Party scrambles to recover from its electoral massacre, some Liberal politicians publicly toyed with dumping some Howard-era policies. Former minister for industrial slavery Joe Hockey told the November 28 Sydney Morning Herald that "Work Choices is dead ... Labor has an undeniable, overwhelming mandate to abolish Work Choices."

However, new Liberal leader Brendan Nelson signalled that the Liberal Party may block Labor's changes to Work Choices if it deems they are likely to "decrease jobs".

However, the ALP's policy is to retain much of Work Choices. It has pledged to maintain the ban on strikes outside of bargaining periods, to keep mandatory secret ballots before strikes, to keep the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), and to keep AWAs (individual contracts) until the end of 2012.

Many unionists are unhappy with Labor's policy shortcomings. Unions NSW secretary John Robertson has called for Labor to retrospectively abolish AWAs immediately and has called for YRAW groups to push for this, according to the November 26 Australian.

Many businesses, including Telstra, are attempting to hastily sign up employees to AWAs or to renew them for a further five years before the laws are changed, the Australian reported. While this is legal under Labor's so-called "transitional arrangements", Labor's IR minister Julia Gillard "warned" companies against following Telstra's lead. Stephen Jones, national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, was quoted in the November 30 SMH calling for Labor to ban new AWAs from January 1.

Union leaders from Victoria have backed Robertson's call for the retrospective abolition of AWAs. Electrical Trades Union state secretary Dean Mighell, Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden and Communication Workers Union postal and telecommunications branch state secretary Joan Doyle all told Green Left Weekly that they back this call.

Derek Belan, NSW state secretary of the National Union of Workers agreed that AWAs need to go — now. "The union movement needs to make it clear to the government that working people have voted that they no longer want AWAs to be a part of the workplace ... If Rudd doesn't listen he may not be around in 2012 to find out that it was a bad policy. There's a couple of elections between now and then", he told GLW.

In any interim period while AWAs still formally exist, "the main way to stop the spread of AWAs is with an aggressive industrial campaign", Belan said. "Any employer who implements them should be taken to task immediately. As a union movement, no longer as individual unions, we have shown that if we work together we can achieve great things. Even without using our biggest force, which is our industrial fight, we removed a government.

"Labor has to honour their commitments and allow workers to go to work without threat. If you go on strike, you'll get fined. If you say the wrong thing to the boss you'll get sacked. That should all be removed: anything that's a threat to the worker should be removed."

Andrew Ferguson, NSW state secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), told GLW, "Our first priority is to get Labor to agree to those parts of the workplace relations policy that they were elected on to be implemented. Many thousands of workers were forced on to unfair individual agreements which undermined their wages and their conditions, and we don't believe that we have any responsibility to those employers that coerced workers into unfair labour contracts."

Gooden told GLW that the Labor government "has a mandate for one thing — and that's the abolition of Work Choices". "Abolishing AWAs is an important place to start, but the whole rotten structure of Work Choices has to be torn down. And if Labor won't do it without a push, then it's up to the union movement to push them."

Belan said the union movement needed to fight to force Labor to overturn all of Work Choices. The union movement "should take whatever action necessary to put working people into the position that they voted they wanted to be in", he said.

Mighell noted that "without the support of the Greens and without the support of the union movement, Labor wouldn't have won government". The election outcome represented a "total rejection of Work Choices". "Not only should it be binned, but it should be replaced with something much better than has been talked about to date [by Labor]."

Mighell agreed that unions shouldn't give the new government a honeymoon period before pushing for changes. "The key issue is that we need to get the most extreme laws revoked quickly. And the most extreme laws exist in the building and construction industry and they are the laws that put in place the ABCC. The ABCC has hideous and undemocratic coercive powers. It's a political police force that holds no place in a fair and democratic country.

"The next thing we should say is that Labor voted at its [2007] national conference that it would abide by [International Labour Organisation] conventions ...

"Australians have known that big business has had it way too much in its favour. Big business has been worker-bashing and Australians want that to stop. So let's not replace [Howard's laws] that with more individual contracts, more secret ballots, more building industry task forces, more restrictions on union officials entering workplaces — they're the things Australians reject."

Doyle agreed that the union movement should immediately argue for all of Howard's laws to go. She hopes that the YRAW campaign isn't dismantled because it has been very effective and "we need to put pressure on the new [ALP] government. To have our voice heard, we need something like the Your Rights at Work campaign, but not just in marginal seats. We need both Your Rights at Work groups and Union Solidarity [a community solidarity group]. Union Solidarity is more about showing solidarity with workers through direct action. YRAW is more about educating people. There's a role for both these organisations acting on a grassroots basis."

When asked what the key aspects of Work Choices are that her union wants changed, Doyle said that "collective bargaining [needs] to change so that you can have any content you like in an enterprise bargaining agreement, such as job security and a stop on contracting out work". Currently, Work Choices prohibits unions from including a wide range of conditions in enterprise agreements.

Union leaders were also unfazed by Labor's threats to treat political protests during work hours (such as the 2005-06 YRAW rallies) illegal. Belan argued that unions must continue organising demonstrations against injustice at work "even at the risk of jail". "The union movement should never concede its right to take action against unfair laws ... regardless of which government is in power. The workers' right to withdraw their labour is something that shouldn't even be questioned."

Ferguson agreed. "We've always believed that democracy shouldn't stop at the workplace", he told GLW. "We don't believe that democracy is where you just cast a ballot every three or four years. Workers should have democratic rights to protest, to campaign for their rights."

"Unions must never give up the right to democratically assemble and protest", Mighell said. "We should never give up the right to fight against bad laws. Things like going to a public demonstration or rally are a real expression of a nation's democracy ... when Labor came out at its national conference saying that workers stopping work to attend a rally would be illegal under its government, well that's a breach of the ILO convention. It breaches a fundamental human right."

Gooden said that "the YRAW campaign forced the anti-Work Choices campaign onto Labor's agenda in the first place", so "only by continuing the campaign, including the street demonstrations, and solidarity with workplaces under attack, will the union movement be able to maintain pressure on Labor ..."

In the final week of the election campaign, Rudd said that his government would not tolerate wage campaigns demanding wage increases above inflation — despite housing costs, child care, petrol prices and grocery prices all rising faster than inflation. "If Mr Rudd wants enterprise bargaining, he should leave [wage rises] between the union and the enterprise", Belan responded. "He has to accept the dog-eat-dog world that he's promoting. You can't come out and say that you can't make a claim above inflation and then say that we don't want a centralised wage fixing system."

There should be no question that Labor's election on November 24 was on the back of many thousands of hours of campaigning by working people in defence of their rights at work. Now that the government has been changed, the task is to also change the laws. Labor will not act quickly enough, nor will it go far enough, without sustained pressure from below. While the YRAW campaign has one victory in unseating Howard and his government, the greater victory of winning fairness at work still needs to be fought for.

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