Unionists to Rudd: 'Where are our rights at work?'

Labor won the November, 2007 federal election on the promise to "tear-up" Work Choices, abolish the hated Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs — individual contracts) and overhaul the entire industrial relations system. Of course, all of this was promised to contain ample consultation and be in the spirit of balance.

Unbeknown to most, behind the spin of "tearing-up" Work Choices, coupled with a new vision of industrial relations, Labor's intention was always to only tinker with then-PM John Howard's notorious IR regime, maintain the deregulation of the labour market and provide the utmost flexibility for bosses: a "Work Choices lite".

Consultation did occur, especially with business. Big business met with Labor's parliamentary leaders prior to the federal election, after which Labor released its Policy Implementation Plan, which was a revision of their Forward with Fairness IR policy, adopted by national conference in April 2007.

In a speech given in May this year, Australian Industry Group CEO Heather Ridout referred to this change of ALP policy as "alleviating industry's concerns" and "an important sign that a Labor Government would be prepared to listen to genuine concerns and take a practical approach to implementation".

According to Steve Dargavel, Victorian state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, rising opinion polls before the election gave Labor the confidence to do a backflip on their IR policy. He also thinks the ALP deliberately created the impression in people's minds that they would restore workers' rights. "Labor assumed that a lot of people would not pay attention to the detail of their policy and I think they were correct in that", he told Green Left Weekly.

Eight months later, the massive gulf between working people's expectations of what Labor was elected to do and the reality of what Labor is doing in government is growing. At the same time, Labor is saying that it will deliver the policy it promised. So what did it promise?

Amid much media hype and fanfare, the Labor government introduced the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 into parliament on February 13, prohibiting the signing of new AWAs. The government hailed this step as the first in a raft of bills that would see the end of Work Choices.

However this small concession on AWAs was neutralised by the fact that existing AWAs can continue even after their nominal end-date — until either the boss or the worker opts out. Bosses were also given the option of using a "transitional" AWA clone — the Interim Transitional Employment Agreement (ITEA), if they had just one worker on an existing AWA.

The Workplace Relations Amendment bill also introduced an award modernisation process and enabled the creation of the National Employment Standards (NES). All "modern awards" and collective agreements will have a mandatory "flexibility" clause, which will allow bosses to negotiate working conditions with individual workers. While the government says the "flexibility" is aimed at working parents, giving them greater leeway, clauses will also allow business to use individual agreements more comprehensively and as compensation for the lost AWAs.

Touted as an important safety net for workers, the NES will come into effect in January 2010. Between now and then, the NES will form the basis of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission's work to "simplify" more than 2400 awards. The benefit to workers of the NES is, however, minimal. All the apparently progressive elements are already contained in awards.

Dargavel told GLW that changes made to the Industrial Relations Act in 1996 allowed employers to undercut collective agreements through the insertion of individual provisions into awards, which essentially were the precursors to AWAs. He also said that the proposed modernised award system will give employers the ability to suppress wages and reduce conditions.

Under the award modernisation process, awards will be stripped back to 10 allowable matters, forcing workers to negotiate with their boss at enterprise level for conditions that are part of current awards. Low-paid workers in the private system without union coverage will be the worst affected. They won't have the benefit of unions bargaining for better conditions to supplement an award.

Apart from prohibiting the creation of new AWAs, PM Kevin Rudd is simply planning to leave the rest of Work Choices intact until the "new" IR regime is introduced in 2010.

There are no plans in Labor's new IR vision to re-introduce the right of unions to organise in the workplace. Restrictive laws on union officials' right of entry are here to stay and strikes would only be legal during the bargaining period for a new agreement, and only after holding a secret ballot.

Dargavel told GLW that he is concerned that Labor is continuing the Howard government's policy of restricting workers' right to organise. "We still have a hostile rights agenda and international and Australian experiences confirm that under these circumstances it is very difficult for workers to organise for justice", he said.

Industry-wide pattern bargaining will remain outlawed. Labor has also explicitly ruled out re-introducing unfair dismissal laws until January 2010, leaving workers in small businesses without protection.

Of serious concern to many workers is the ongoing existence of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The ABCC was set up by the previous government in 2005 to break the industrial muscle of the building unions and guarantee a profit bonanza for developers.

Under the ABCC's draconian powers, telling someone about your interrogation is an offence and refusing to attend hearings or answer questions can lead to a six-month jail sentence. No other group of Australian workers is subject to such discriminatory laws, just building industry workers.

Since the election of the Rudd government, the number of investigations by the ABCC has increased dramatically, from 33 in November to 49 in June. Site visits have increased from 15 in November to 109 in June. Unions featured overwhelmingly as subjects of investigation in 73% of all ABCC cases, countering the claim that the ABCC was a "neutral" body.

Rudd has pledged to keep the ideologically driven secret taskforce until 2010.

In a further concession to business, federal industrial relations minister Julia Gillard announced before the election that she wants to keep a "tough cop on the beat" in the building industry, and plans to establish a separate building industry inspectorate in Labor's new workplace "umpire", Fair Work Australia.

Dean Mighell, Victorian state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union told GLW that it is absurd to keep the ABCC, or any taskforce for that matter. "Why should you keep a body that attacks one small sector of the Australian work force? It is very disappointing that a Labor government was willing to take the bastard child of a political witch-hunt, the royal commission into the building industry".

Dargavel agrees: "Labor now has to make a decision if they will be the perpetrators of this injustice. They can't simply sit on the fence and say these are John Howard's laws."

"If Rudd and Gillard choose to keep the laws in place then they are their laws, not Howard's. You can't keep blaming the prime minister of the past for current stuff", Mighell said.

Frustration at the slow pace of government action to overturn the laws is growing. A recent Galaxy poll revealed that an overwhelming majority of respondents want the hated Work Choices legislation abolished immediately, no further delays on the re-introduction of unfair dismissal laws and collective bargaining restored now.

Kathy Jackson, national secretary of the Health Services Union, told ABC Lateline on July 24: "We feel that we're not getting the outcome that was promised to us before the election. Now they've been elected, now they need to discharge their commitment to the electorate, and I mean totally discharge that commitment by tearing out Work Choices."

There is also growing discontent among unionists with the lack of leadership provided by the Australian Council of Trade Unions in pressuring Labor to deliver to working people. According to the July 22 Australian, a range of unions are dissatisfied with the ACTU's reluctance to publicly criticise the Rudd government and push harder on the dismantling of Work Choices.

Mighell was also critical of the ACTU's leadership. "The ACTU needs to step up the campaign. Some people in the ACTU are too conflicted when it comes to ALP matters and have been for decades: this has to stop. The ACTU needs to fire up for workers not for the ALP", he said.

Mighell told GLW that the ALP has turned its back on workers' rights and if the union movement is "fair dinkum" about workers' rights it will have to campaign as hard under a Labor government as it did against Howard. Mighell, who has supported socialist and Greens candidates in the past, also has a message for the Labor party: "If we can prove that ALP politicians can't uphold labour values then we must campaign to support an alternative."

Both Dargavel and Mighell call for a vigorous campaign to get rid of the anti-union laws in the spirit of the Your Rights at Work campaign. Dargavel said that the YRaW campaign was effective because it mobilised the community and raised the profile of the issues — but it hasn't been effective in overturning Work Choices.

"We have to run a YRaW campaign and engage the community and the [union] membership; it is not enough to simply remove a government and have a new one that doesn't do what it undertook to do", Dargavel said. He also argued that the key challenge for unions now was to build sufficient unity within the workers' movement to pressure the ALP into responding to that community sentiment.