Labor announces Work Choices Lite

September 1, 2007

Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFUA) Victorian secretary Michele O'Neil was so furious when she heard the Labor Party's reworking of its industrial relations policy that she penned an open letter to Labor leader Kevin Rudd and deputy leader Julia Gillard in protest [see page 8].

Labor's policy retains a significant portion of the Howard government's Work Choices and all of its 1996 Workplace Relations Act. The key features announced by Rudd and Gillard on August 28 were:

• Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts) that are signed prior to the implementation date of Labor's Transition Bill will remain in force until they expire, which could be up to five years. That means some AWAs won't expire until 2012.

• Employers who have even one worker on an AWA will be allowed to sign workers to Individual Transitional Employee Agreements, during the two year period of award simplification, but they must expire by December 31, 2009.

• Employees earning more than $100,000 a year will not be covered by the award system.

• It will be compulsory for a flexibility clause to be inserted into all awards and enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) that allows for individual workers to negotiate individual arrangements with their boss.

• The Howard government's tough restrictions on right of union officials to enter workplaces will remain.

• The sections of the Trade Practices Act that ban secondary boycotts will remain.

• Industrial action will only be protected when taken during enterprise bargaining and only after a secret ballot. All industrial action during the life of an agreement will be unprotected. Labor will retain the Howard government's methods and penalties for employers to use against unions taking unprotected action.

• Pattern bargaining will be banned and any industrial action in pursuit of pattern bargaining will be unprotected.

• There will be no automatic right of unions to be involved in bargaining in a workplace where there are both union members and non-members. Unions will not even be notified when a non-union agreement is being negotiated.

• Workers in firms of 15 or less employees will be excluded from redundancy payments.

• The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) will continue with all of its current powers and resources until 2010 when its powers will be transferred to a specialist division of the inspectorate of Fair Work Australia.

• If the majority of workers in a workplace want a collective agreement, then the employer must engage in good faith bargaining, but there is no mechanism to force the employer to negotiate an agreement.

• Unfair dismissal provisions will be reintroduced but workers in businesses with 15 or fewer workers will be on probation for 12 months before they can lodge a claim. In larger businesses, workers will be on probation for six months.

In media interviews, Gillard and Rudd claimed that the ALP's industrial relations policy is fair and balanced between the wishes of business and unions, and that criticism of the policy from both sides proved that they had the balance right, "dead centre" in fact.

O'Neil responded to this saying "I don't think it is the role of the Labor Party to aspire to be dead centre. I think my members' expectation is that a Labor Party would stand clearly for the interests of working people." The reaction from the big corporations has been mixed, with most, such as BHP Billiton, saying that they would prefer to keep the whole of Work Choices but could live quite comfortably with Labor's policy. Some sections of the mining industry are still totally opposed to Labor's policy because they are totally opposed to unions. For example, Newcrest Mining CEO Ian Smith told the August 30 Australian Financial Review that his company didn't deal with unions: "it's just not part of the way we do business".

The Australian Council of Trade Unions welcomed the policy while expressing some disappointment that AWAs wouldn't be phased out until 2012.

The Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia, which negotiates many of the common law contracts for workers earning more than $100,000, is opposed to the removal of award coverage for these workers. APESMA executive director Geoff Fary told the Australian on August 30 that the award was still important for this group of workers. While they rarely referred to the award for pay issues, it was important for guidance on career structures and skills.

O'Neil told Green Left Weekly that the TCFUA was opposed to the Labor Party's policy restricting right of entry for union officials and the retention of AWAs for five years. "The obvious likely effect between now and [a] change in legislation", she said, "is that employers will rush headlong into trying to increase the number of workers forced onto AWAs. The capacity for AWAs to continue under a different name [Individual Transitional Employee Agreements] is also something we're opposed to.

"The disgrace of leaving in place the ABCC and the coercive powers for workers in the building industry is another aspect that my union is against."

O'Neil described the attempt by a textile factory to make its agreement compliant with the national building code. "Our concern is that the next step would be that the ABCC requirements would be seen to apply to suppliers to the building industry."

"I'm already on the record as being clearly in opposition to the [Labor] policy on unfair dismissal, I don't think there should be a probation period. The aspects of the policy that relate to secret ballots and strike action are also not supported by this union.

"We'd also be concerned about what individual agreement under the flexibility clauses in awards and EBAs means. Our concern is that it would be used by employers to say to workers 'Well you agree to this or you don't have a job'. The impact of Work Choices has been dramatic for workers in our industry. We've got workers who have twice rejected non-union agreements and still the companies are attempting to introduce non-union collective agreements that reduce [workers'] rights and conditions dramatically. The workers have voted no to that and have now been without a wage increase for more than three years.

"We've had workers dismissed unfairly in workplaces where the company hasn't had any basis to dismiss them and has just gone ahead and sacked them.

"We have also had great examples of workers continuing to stand up and act collectively and courageously. We've managed to win some great battles and an example of that was the Feltex workers last year. The company attempted to force 300 of them onto AWAs and those workers won the battle to win back the collective union agreement. That showed that even in the worst circumstances when the company was in receivership and workers were being threatened with the loss of their jobs and all of their entitlements, they stood up to it and ultimately won a union agreement."

O'Neil said that "unions need to be strongly out there campaigning on behalf of their members to get the best possible commitments on workers' rights and industrial relations. Our job should be to make it an election issue that changes policy and commitments. We're not going to accept those changes to ALP policy or platform.

"As well as campaigning to get rid of the Howard government, we're also going to be campaigning to have commitments from the Labor Party and any other party including the Greens and independents that are going to deliver some fairness and justice back for workers. We're going to fight for that, whoever wins. I think that it's a mistake for unions to not stand up strongly and say [that] this is our expectation of what should be delivered by a Labor government."

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