Victorian unionists: More to be done for workers' rights

February 29, 2008

Five days after the November 24 federal election, outgoing industrial relations minister Joe Hockey admitted, in a rare moment of political honesty, that Work Choices contributed to the Coalition government's defeat. He declared that the new Labor government was given a mandate by the people to abolish the Work Choices legislation.

However, contrary to Labor's election promise to "tear-up" Work Choices, PM Kevin Rudd's government has indicated it will retain many of the former Howard government's draconian anti-worker laws as part of its "interim" bill. Individual contracts, restrictions on union representatives' right of entry and on the right to strike, and the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), set up to curb the industrial muscle of building workers, are set to stay until at least 2010.

The federal government has also embarked on a campaign for wage restraint in the face of rising inflation. In a February 25 CNBC Asia interview, deputy prime minister Julia Gillard urged restraint, warning that workers would make no real gains if they ended up "fuelling a wages inflation cycle".

Michele O'Neil, Victorian secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union, rejects the notion that wage restraint is necessary to keep inflation low. She told Green Left Weekly that TCFUA members were low-waged workers struggling to meet the demands of daily living, and that they had a right to improved wages and conditions — and that the union will fight for them. The Victorian president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Ralph Edwards, agrees. He told GLW that wages had been restrained for a very long time, and that bad economic policy was to blame for inflation, not workers.

"Our national divisional secretary Dave Noonan made it clear in the media that we won't take responsibility for inflation and that we have dealt with the employers of our industry on a rational basis", Edwards said. "However as a consequence of that he has come under criticism from the new Rudd government, which is all a bit hard to understand."

Labor's transitional IR bill will scrap Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs — individual contracts), a key Labor election promise. However it will replace them with a new variety of individual contract, the Interim Transitional Employment Agreements (ITEA).

Julie Bishop, the Liberal Party's deputy leader, announced on February 19 that the Coalition would not oppose the abolition of AWAs and would back Labor's ITEA scheme.

O'Neil told GLW that the TCFUA would be campaigning to end all forms individual contracts, arguing that workers need collective rights and collective union agreements underpinned by strong industrial awards.

Steve Dargavel, Victorian secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), expressed concerns to GLW about the "flexibility" clause in awards — introducing individual contracts via the back door — that will be part of the federal government's awards policy.

He explained that these flexibility provisions — inserted by the Industrial Relations Commission into awards after the first round of award stripping that began with the Howard government's 1996 industrial relations legislation — allowed employers to stand over workers and require them to agree to give away certain conditions. He said that "the CFMEU, AMWU, Electrical Trades Union and a range of other unions were very successful in excluding the operation of these provisions through their past enterprise bargaining agreement [EBA] negotiations. It is unclear whether this tactic will be available to us in the new legislation."

The ABCC, established in 2005 and funded to the tune of $32 million a year, was set up to police the militant construction unions. Edwards told GLW that the ABCC has been used against construction workers in disputes with bosses over enforcing EBA provisions and health and safety issues. In November, Peter Ballard, an elected union representative in WA, was sacked for insisting on maintaining safe working conditions.

Edwards said that the CFMEU 2008 national conference "made it clear that we are totally opposed to the continuation of the ABCC and we also don't see why there should be a special section of the Fair Work Australia [which the ABCC will be incorporated into in 2010 under Labor's plan] for construction workers. We are not criminals, we go to work, we do our work and productivity and profits in our industry have never been better; there is no need for any inspectorate, whether it is called the ABCC with their coercive powers or Fair Work Australia."

Edwards also told GLW that the CFMEU will be negotiating a new EBA this year. "We will be pursuing an EBA at a time to suit ourselves and we will be talking to employers the same way as we have always talked to them. We have to talk to them about an industry because on any site you can have 20-30 subcontractors and if we were enterprise bargaining for 20 or 30 people at different times that would be an absolute disaster for the employers.

"We will be having a very interesting year as the federal government is trying to work out what they really are going to do and I hope they will tell us in advance."

Dargavel called on the federal government to bring Australian industrial relations law in line with International Labour Organization standards, that allow for the right to strike, organise in the workplaces and collectively bargain. O'Neil also supported Australia meeting ILO standards, explaining to GLW that "the real issues that are making a difference to the daily lives of my members are the fact that they have no unfair dismissal rights and are being penalised for active unionism and are not able to collectively bargain across the industry legally.

"Also difficult are the prohibited content restrictions; workers need unfettered right to strike with out fear of fines and jail. We need to remove all aspects of legislation that criminalise basic union work."

On February 21 the Victorian Trades Hall Council passed a resolution to continue the "Your Rights at Work" campaign. The resolution was modeled on a motion unanimously endorsed at a Victorian AMWU delegates' meeting. Dargavel said that there was still a significant distance to go for the campaign, both in eliminating Work Choices and defending workers from further attacks on their rights.

"We envisage large delegates' meetings, public rallies, demonstrations, petitions, and lobbying — the full cacophony of a campaign. One of the biggest challenges for progressives will be to try to work to keep a sense of cohesion and solidarity but keep the campaign going."

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