new front in the battle against the Howard government's anti-union laws has opened with a push by federal workplace relations minister Joe Hockey for local councils to sign their employees up to the new Work Choices legislation.
Hockey claimed in a letter to councils that they are "constitutional corporations" — trading or financial corporations within Australia — and therefore automatically covered by Work Choices. "Councils cannot choose which system to be covered by", Hockey wrote. "Only councils that are not constitutional corporations remain covered by their state industrial relations system. Most councils will be covered by the federal Work Choices system."
Thousands of local government workers could be forced to trade off penalty rates and overtime as councils seek to transfer staff from the state to federal industrial system.
In a test case, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Australian Services Union, backed by the Queensland Labor government, have launched federal court action to attempt to stop Etheridge council, west of Cairns, from putting employees under Work Choices.
On April 13, AWU national secretary Bill Shorten said council employees would be worse off because Work Choices allowed councils to sign new employees onto Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs — individual contracts) with inferior conditions. "A lot of councils aren't looking to rock the boat, but it will become the order of the day. It will be like a slow virus", Shorten added.
Since the introduction of Work Choices last July, 95 Queensland workers employed by 23 councils have signed individual contracts. Nationally, to April 6, 102 local councils had lodged collective agreements covering more than 17,000 workers, as well as 782 individual contracts.