Warning: Work Choices to rise from the dead

When Liberal leader Tony Abbott promised in the last federal election campaign that the notorious anti-worker “Work Choices” laws of the former Howard Liberal-National government were “dead, buried and cremated” very few people believed him.

This scepticism could soon be proved justified with the Julia Gillard Labor government close to collapse after a drubbing in the opinion polls and a scandal involving MP Craig Thomson, who faces allegations of fraud during his time as a union official.

Emboldened corporate bosses have ramped up their demands on the Gillard government to abandon the Fair Work Australia laws (Labor’s “Work Choices Lite”) and swing back to the individual contracts of Howard’s Work Choices.

The demands began with retail sector bosses demanding their workers — already among the lowest paid — sacrifice their penalty rates and unfair dismissal rights.

More recently Helen Ridout, the CEO of the Australian Industry Group, and former BHP Billiton chairman Don Argus, called for a return to individual contracts.

Never mind that Australia’s corporations are enjoying a huge profit surge.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) says in the three months to June, company profits rose by an average of 6.7% (seasonally adjusted). Wages and salaries rose just 2.3%.

Mining company profits rose a whopping 15.2%. All sectors, except manufacturing, saw profit rises.

Even the retail sector — which grumbled that consumers have been shopping less because of fears of global recession and rising energy, water and housing costs — enjoyed a profit rise of 6.2%.

Yet the greedy corporate bosses still want to put the boot into their workers.

This insatiable greed — and the social and ecological vandalism that goes with it — is chronic under the capitalist system, a system gripped and distorted by a mindless drive for more profit.

Credit Suisse’s October 2010 “Global Wealth Report” said 83% of the world’s wealth is now in the hands of the richest 10%.

The big question is whether the Australian trade union movement is ready to confront the return of Work Choices.

The “Your Rights At Work” campaign — which actually brought down the Howard government — was shelved after Labor took office, even though the Labor government refused to fully repeal Howard’s anti-worker laws.

Most union leaderships went back into the box under Labor and the movement has paid a terrible price.

After rising during the period of the big fight against Work Choices, union membership has begun to fall again.

The ABS said in May that the proportion of employees who were trade union members in their main job fell from 20% in August 2009 to 18% in August 2010.

Shop floor organisation has weakened in many industries and many union leaders are more discredited in the eyes of rank and file workers because they have excused or remained silent while the Labor government has implemented the corporate profits-first agenda.

There is no way out of this mess without the trade union movement breaking from the shackles of the Labor Party and rebuilding itself as an independent, fighting voice of the working class.

Green Left Weekly campaigns for an independent, democratic and fighting trade union movement. Please make a contribution this week to the GLW Fighting Fund.

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