Who's afraid of the union movement?

June 8, 2007

Since federal ALP leader Kevin Rudd outlined Labor's "Work Choices lite" on April 17 — promising that a Labor government would maintain the Coalition's ban on strikes outside of bargaining periods and secret ballots — Labor's full-scale retreat on industrial relations has continued.

On April 30, a day after the ALP national conference, Rudd described Victorian Electrical Trades Union (ETU) secretary Dean Mighell as "unacceptable", "wrong" and belonging "to a different century" on the ABC's 7.30 report. This was because Mighell described PM John Howard as a "skid-mark on the bed sheet of Australian politics".

One month later, after recordings of Mighell endorsing militant union tactics at an ETU delegates' meeting surfaced in the corporate media, Rudd demanded his resignation from the ALP.

Over that same month, Rudd's ALP has reneged on its promise to abolish individual contracts (AWAs, allowing them to exist until 2013), backed off a promise to abolish the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC, which now stays until 2010 and is then renamed and incorporated into Labor's Fair Work Australia), and condemned the Australian Council of Trade Unions for having Australia's IR laws listed as a matter of concern with the International Labor Organisation.

"We want to put the us-and-them approach to industrial relations behind us for good and return Australia's political balance to where it should be and where the Australian people overwhelmingly want it to be: the centre", wrote Julia Gillard, Labor IR spokesperson in an opinion piece for the June 6 Australian. And to further appease corporate Australia, Gillard promised to offer current Australian Industrial Relations Commission president Geoffrey Giudice, a Howard government appointment and former employer advocate, the inaugural presidency of Fair Work Australia.

Yet, for Rupert Murdoch's Sydney Daily Telegraph, Labor hasn't moved far enough right. In a June 5 article, titled "Union yobs could decide election", Luke McIlveen tries to link West Australian union officials Kevin Reynolds and Joe McDonald's criticisms of Labor's IR backdowns with the charging of a Victorian construction worker with having allegedly threatened to kill an ABCC investigator at a Melbourne building site last year.

The message was made even clearer by the paper's editorial. Rudd must "devise an immediate strategy to place some distance — a lot of distance between his party and the intimidatory practices beloved of so much of Labor's traditional union support base".

The message from the corporate elite for Labor is clear. The only path to big business support is via even greater concessions to the Howard government's discredited IR agenda.

The reason why business is so desperate to force Labor to dump the last vestiges of its commitment to the union movement is not hard to fathom. Corporate profits soared an extra $47 billion in the March quarter — a record 28.1% of the economy, while wages fell to 53.2%, down from 56% in 2001 according to the June 7 Sydney Morning Herald. At the same time, the Sensis Business Index shows that only 5% of small businesses disapprove of Howard's IR laws. Work Choices has delivered big gains to business by severely restricting the ability of unions to fight for their members' interests. The ruling class is keen to make sure that whichever party is elected that situation remains the same.

While the pressure on Labor to move even further right is likely to be ratcheted up in the run-up to the federal election, the only real solution for working people is if the unions take a more independent stance.

The ALP was forced to adopt many of its anti-Work Choices positions because of the pressure generated by the successful Your Rights at Work campaign that mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers in the streets in 2005 and 2006. Feeling the pressure, Labor initially agreed to abolish AWAs, the ABCC and the (un)Fair Pay Commission.

Since the last major rally, in November 2006, Labor has reneged on each major promise. At the same time Labor's position in the polls has slipped: a June 4 Galaxy poll showed Labor's two-party preferred vote dropped five percentage points from 58% on the back of its IR backdowns.

The message for the union movement is clear. The only chance of getting a future Labor government to commit to reversing all of Work Choices is to campaign for it now. That means organising another national day of action with a clear call for the full repeal of the Coalition's draconian laws, no "Work Choices lite", and the enshrining of the right to strike in law.

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