WA unions win partial victory

Issue 

By Michael Bramwell and Anthony Benbow PERTH — "Strike off as Court Buckles" was the headline on the West Australian on November 8. The Court Liberal government of WA was reported to have "gutted" its "second wave" of anti-union legislation in return for a withdrawal of planned industrial action. This followed three months of industrial and community action, including a 10,000-strong rally on August 22 and a 24-hour statewide strike and interstate blockade on October 17. But what sort of back down have the unions actually won? The "second wave" bill in its original form was a crafty piece of legislation, Premier Richard Court and his cronies having taken heed of the pitfalls of a more "direct" approach to attacks on unions like that taken by Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett. The bill gave the government the power to cancel a state industrial award if a union sought to shift to federal award coverage, to deregister such unions and transfer its members to a substitute union of the government's choice. Any form of industrial action would be declared illegal unless a secret ballot of the membership endorsed the planned action. This would lead to a delay in industrial action for up to six weeks in some disputes, to the obvious advantage of the boss. Without the strength of a mass discussion and vote it also would become easier for workers to be divided on industrial action. The bill restricted union officials' right to enter workplaces where union members are not willing to be identified to their boss. It also restricted inspection of time-and-wage records by union officials, supposedly because it "breaches the privacy of non-union members". Unions were also forbidden from making "political" donations from membership fees (this included all payments to other unions and parties as affiliation fees, as well as some campaign spending), and had to set up a special fund for the purpose. Union officials breaching this rule were to be fined $25,000 and suspended for three years. Bosses were also given power to direct which superannuation fund their workers used. What has the Court government backed down on? Unions seeking federal award coverage will now not be blocked and union officials' rights of entry to workplaces will remain as they are. However secret ballots will be required before industrial action, although the workers can conduct them and the bosses cannot prevent workers from taking part. Fines have been reduced but are still in place for workers who do not comply with the ballot rules. All political donations have to be made from a separate fund, but members contributions can be used for the fund unless a member directs otherwise. Penalties for union officials relating to this area have been removed. Bosses still have the right to direct where a worker's superannuation deductions goes. Overall, the unions have only won a partial victory. They have succeeded in preventing the Court government from going as far as it originally intended, but workers have lost more their rights. It is a partial victory as it has slowed the pace of attacks on workers' rights and community services. WA unions were able to vigorously oppose this legislation from the start because of the momentum already generated by the teachers and others fighting Court's cutbacks. The threats to "political donations" by unions also gave a few ALP-dominated union leaderships a burst of campaign energy they otherwise might not have had, but it also meant that any action called by those unions was likely to be wound down once that clause had been knocked out. One of the reasons Court backed down on the legislation was because, with a federal election approaching, there was a growing fear by workers around the country that the WA legislation might be a prototype for a federal Coalition government. Despite federal Coalition leader John Howard's attempts to distance himself from Court's anti-union legislation, he stood to lose votes over this issue. Elections in WA are also due toward the end of next year, or early the year after. The coming elections were also a factor in the ALP union officials' approach. They had to organise some struggle against Court's attacks but any prolonged industrial campaign would undermine Labor's portrayal of itself as "responsible economic managers". Prime Minister Paul Keating and his deputy, Kim Beazley, gave only cautious support to the strike, and WA Labor leader Jim McGinty even publicly opposed the October 17 national industrial blockade as "harmful to the WA economy". The WA example shows that it is possible to win. But if the union movement is to fully defend workers' rights we have to rebuild it from the grassroots, and build a strong workers' party that will challenge the pro-business ideology of the ALP and Coalition.
[Michael Bramwell and Anthony Benbow are members of the WA CEPU electrical division. Anthony Benbow is the Democratic Socialists' candidate for the federal seat of Perth.]

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