Workers need a mass campaign to kill anti-union bill

Brisbane Change the Rules rally in 2018. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Introduced last December, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 hands businesses more power in the workplace and has been compared with former-prime minister John Howard’s WorkChoices law.

Green Left’s Alex Bainbridge spoke to Michelle Sheehy, an organiser for the Western Australia branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union about the Coalition’s omnibus industrial relations amendment bill a week before the government abandoned most of the bill on March 18 having not gained crossbench support.

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It is an omnibus bill because the federal government is trying to ram through changes their employer mates want. One of the big things is to make it easier to casualise jobs: it will be up to the employer to decide if a job is casual. That will make it much harder to get job security and permanency.

It is also going to make it even harder for workers to bargain for better pay and conditions. Already, fewer and fewer workers are covered by enterprise bargaining agreements and the bill will make it harder.

It also allows for wages and conditions to be cut if a company says it is affected by COVID-19, which is so broadly defined that almost any company can use it as an excuse.  

The bill extends the COVID-19 provisions which can, in effect, be for the whole enterprise agreement or longer.

The bosses also want to remove the negotiating power of blue-collar workers on big projects. That is why they want to extend a greenfields agreement from four to eight years.

Many projects wouldn’t take more than eight years. Currently, at the four-year mark, workers have the right to a new agreement. That means that large groups of workers have the chance to use their power to improve their conditions. The omnibus bill would remove that.

The government says it is bringing in greater penalties for wage theft. But in Queensland and Victoria, which already have such laws, it will weaken those provisions. It will be used in other states as an excuse not to address the issue.

The bill will make it harder for workers to bargain. One of its key changes is to water down the better off overall test (BOOT) in enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) This is a response to the campaign, particularly by the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union that knocked off the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association against Coles and Woolworths EBAs that reduced conditions.

The bill allows employers to bring in agreements that will make some workers worse off.

We need a much stronger campaign. At the moment it is aimed at blocking the bill and, if that is not possible, to remove some of the worst parts. The lobbying is focused on the crossbench Senators, particularly from South Australia.

If some, or all, of this bill is passed we would expect a Labor government to roll it back. However, this would take us back to the Fair Work Act, which is the second worst piece of anti-worker legislation ever suffered by this country.

We need a new “change the rules” campaign, rather than the 2007 Your Rights at Work campaign against Work Choices. That mobilised a lot of people but had no real alternative plan.

The agreement between the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and affiliated unions did not specify what they were seeking and had no firm claims on the incoming Kevin Rudd Labor government. So we ended up with the Fair Work Act, which no-one likes because it continues wage restraint and a broken enterprise bargaining system.

It imposed such harsh restrictions on industrial action that it removed unions’ ability to secure better pay and outcomes.

The ACTU and secretary Sally McManus made it clear that the Change the Rules campaign was not geared towards one election, but was aiming for a more fundamental review of the government’s industrial relations powers.

The idea was to make specific claims on the Labor government to overcome the problems of the Your Rights at Work campaign. They put the Bill Shorten Labor opposition on notice and received some commitments, although not everything we wanted. There was no agreement to provide for the right to strike, for example, or make it easier for workers to take industrial action.

Unfortunately, Labor did not win that election and the campaign fell apart.

Although McManus said it was not just about one election it became clear to many unions and officials that it was, and the Change the Rules campaign was seen as a failure because the election had not been won. I don’t agree with that. There were a lot of things happening and we need to put claims on all parties.

At the moment, there isn’t much support for that view. But we need to revisit it. Rudd didn’t deliver and Julia Gillard, as Minister for Industrial Relations, who was responsible for getting her right-wing legal mates to write the legislation, also didn’t deliver. So the ball is absolutely in the Labor Party’s court.

Many working people were mobilised through that campaign. Unions spent a lot of time organising workers and once Labor was elected they all went home. That was a problem. We should have expected a lot more than the Fair Work Act.

I work with people on minimum award wages and they see very clearly how it affects them. Our members know a lot about greenfields agreements on the big mining and construction projects. About 80–90% of construction workers work on a casual, or labour hire basis, so job security is a massive issue.

A lot of work sites have no agreement in place. Where there are agreements, we challenge them on the basis of the BOOT.

So far, the ACTU campaign has been limited to an online petition and lobbying MPs, which is disappointing. The message about the impact of this bill has not got out more broadly.

As an outsider, I feel that the ACTU is still smarting from the last election and there is a reticence to make demands on a potential Labor government. It needs to get over that and understand that the only way to win is through a grassroots campaign.