Around 200 union leaders from around Australia attended a trade union leadership forum organised by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in Canberra from January 30 to February 1. Many had a lot on their minds. First and foremost, many wondered how the Rudd Labor government's new industrial relations systems would shape up and what the union movement will have to do to make sure it benefits workers? Unfortunately most walked away after three days asking themselves the same questions they arrived with.
Will guilt tripping the ALP succeed in forcing it to improve workers' lot? I think not. But this seemed to be the only strategy coming out of the ACTU's leadership forum.
The big issues like re-winning the right of entry for union officials, pattern (industry-wide) bargaining, and hostile laws like the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act (which governs the Australian Building and Construction Commission — the building industry's own secret police) were not on the agenda.
There were passing comments in the opening address by the ACTU President, Sharan Burrow, about the possibility of global recession, increases in interest rates, plant closures and the trouble with the stock market. Burrow also said that unions may have to campaign against the government to "get rid of the worst aspects of Work Choices".
The bulk of the agenda was taken up with presentations about union membership density, membership surveys and of course the Your Rights at Work poll results: all of which were quite interesting in themselves, but could just have easily have been circulated beforehand.
The leadership forum was not intended by the ACTU to be a decision making meeting but more of a feedback and information sharing exercise.
The new buzzword from the ACTUwas "employer neutrality", which has something to do with the notion that you can get an employer not to interfere with the union recruitment process. Ideally, it means that the employer doesn't use anti-worker laws, or that the laws are removed so they can't be used and you have genuine "freedom of association". But of course the idea of a "neutral employer" is an oxymoron. Other new buzzwords were used too, like "place organising", which used to simply be called organising workers.
Of course, the ACTU has a plan. After the next ACTU executive meeting in March, things should become a little clearer. At the moment the ACTU plan centres on two aims. First — and no one disagrees — is to get rid of the AWAs (individual contracts) by having the ALP's industrial relations legislation pass through the Senate before Easter.
This legislation, known as "the interim bill" will go before parliament in its first sitting. However, even though this legislation will stop new AWAs being contracted (and there are 1000 new AWAs being signed every day), it is of little use against bosses that have already been using AWAs, because they will be able to use the new AWA clone — an Interim Transmission Employment Agreement (ITEA), which the ALP legislation will create — until the whole system is replaced in 2010.
The ACTU's immediate focus is to pressure the Liberals to pass the "interim bill", keeping the focus off Labor.
The harder task will be the development of the trade union movement's strategy to tackle the "main bill" — which will establish the new IR system to come into play in 2010. The ACTU's strategy seems to be to use the momentum from the Your Rights at Work campaign to guilt trip or embarrass the government into delivering the goods.
What the union movement should be working on is a campaign that will force employers and the government to introduce genuinely fair IR laws. For me, a fairer industrial system would be one in which there are no laws that govern or control workers and their unions, a genuine free market where workers have full control over their own labour. Lets see who is the majority then.
The ACTU wants all the changes to legislation to be presented and passed this year but the government has a longer time frame in mind. One thing is for sure though, and that is that the odd complaint to the federal government over a cup of coffee is not going to move the debate forward.
The left unions need to formally caucus, revisit the IR policy endorsed at the 2006 ACTU Congress and set some clear demands to rally around. Your rights at work are still worth fighting for, but lobbying only employs the lobbyist.
[Tim Gooden is the secretary of Geelong Trades Hall and a member of Socialist Alliance]