On May 12, federal opposition leader Kevin Rudd chartered a private plane to fly to Western Australia to meet with BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside bosses. The meeting followed two weeks of the mining bosses arguing that Labor's promise to abolish AWAs (individual contracts), confirmed at its April national conference, would harm the resources boom and lower productivity in the mining sector.
Since his return from WA, Rudd has been looking for the wriggle room to water down his AWA promise. The May 17 Daily Telegraph reported that Julia Gillard, Labor's spokesperson on workplace relations, announced that Labor would introduce "transitional" arrangements to allow mining companies to keep AWAs until at least 2013.
Unionists across a range of industries, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), are unhappy with any suggestion of a Labor compromise on AWAs, and are demanding that the ALP live up to its commitment. Private Labor polling published in the May 16 Sydney Morning Herald also reveals that Labor's promise to abolish AWAs is popular.
Labor's threatened retreat comes hot on the heels of Gillard's promise to give mining companies most of what they want. Labor will provide "an award system that allows individual flexibilities, having that facilitated through awards, so it is a flexible system", Gillard told Channel Nine's Sunday program on May 13. "It's got an individual arrangement in there through common law contracts", she stressed.
Unsurprisingly, the media debate on AWAs since the ALP conference has been dominated by the bosses. However, there is another side to the story.
The much vaunted "flexibility" of AWAs provides few benefits for workers, even in the highly paid mining sector. "We asked a long line of mining companies in WA if they could give us an employee who's on an AWA who's happy about it, and happy to spruik about its benefits — but no luck", Fran Kelly, ABC's Radio National Breakfast presenter, said on May 4.
"There's no involvement from the worker at all, it's just here it is, like it or lump it and give us a hug and we'll look after you", Kevin Quill, an electrician employed by mining giant Rio Tinto in the Pilbara, told Green Left Weekly. "The contract is pretty simple, but at the end of it, it says: 'You will abide by the policies and procedures of the company and these will change from time to time to suit the business needs'. So it's a blank cheque. One day they could say you're working eight hours, the next day they could say you're working 10."
Quill explained that workers on AWAs in the mining industry are generally working more than 12 hours each shift. "The guys in the trucks or stuck in a machine start work at 5.30am or pm, go virtually straight out to their machine until 1.30-2am or pm. There's no set breaks where we are. You're there until they get someone to swap you out. All we're guaranteed is a base pay of 40 hours and it's up to the bosses as to what roster you're on."
Quill stressed that the mining bosses would not give up on AWAs unless forced to do so. "They love these AWAs; they can do what they like on them. They don't have to talk to us. They can tell us what we're going to do, [that] we've got a different shift."
ACTU secretary Greg Combet, on the ABC's Lateline program on May 15, opposed the mining industry's campaign to get Labor to abandon its pledge to abolish AWAs. "Collective bargaining is an internationally respected human right", he said, adding, "Individual contracts are at fundamental odds with that right".
Derek Belan, NSW state secretary of the National Union of Workers, told GLW that getting rid of AWAs is "fundamental to the Labor Party's platform". "It shouldn't be a question in Labor's head. AWAs are designed to strip away conditions."
Belan said he was "happy that Rudd wants to talk to business", but stressed, "he must maintain the fundamental principle of abolishing AWAs".
Following the mining bosses' campaign, CEOs of other industries are lining up to pressure Labor to backslide on its IR policy. The Master Builders Association has criticised Labor's promise to abolish the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission, whose powers include the right to interrogate building workers in closed session.
Refusal to attend or answer questions can lead to six months' jail for contempt. Gillard responded by assuring business that Labor's specialist building division, to be attached to Fair Work Australia (Labor's replacement for the Australian Industrial Relations Commission), will be a "tough cop on the beat". On May 16, Gillard also confirmed that stopping work in the event of a death in the building industry would be illegal under a Labor government.
Mining and building bosses are also concerned about a Labor government reinstating union officials' right of entry to workplaces. Work Choices imposes a condition of 24 hours' notice on union officials wanting to enter a work site. It also gives the boss the right to set the time and place that officials may meet with members (in the room next to the boss's office, for instance) and to prescribe the path the union official can take from the site entry to the meeting place (to avoid the official seeing potential health and safety risks). So far, Labor has been silent on whether it will reinstate the right of entry.
"The right of entry is fundamentally important", Tony Papa, secretary of the NSW Building Group of Unions, told GLW. "If officials can't get on building sites to police safety and to ensure that people are getting their proper entitlements, it'll create a tremendous amount of problems. If we can't get on to sites to do what we have been doing for years, then the accident rates will increase substantially.
"The Labor Party, particularly Julia Gillard, is aware of the need to access building sites for those reasons. For us, there won't be any compromise about what happens with the right of entry. It's a cornerstone of the activities that we undertake on a daily basis."
Belan agreed: "The employer has a right to bring in representatives of his employer group at any time he likes. The workplace is a worker's home for 10 hours a day. Why shouldn't they be able to invite anyone they want? Unions are not third parties; they're there at the workers' request. Right now, the employers would even let your mum come into the work place — if she's not a unionist."