The Guardian 6 April, 2005
Strength in the union
Workers individually are powerless against the boss. Alone they are at the complete mercy of an employer who will exploit them to the hilt and put their health and their lives at risk to do so. It is their organisation in trade unions, their unity — the power of the collective — that enables workers to withdraw their labour that gives workers the strength to defend their rights. It is this strength that the Howard government wants to destroy with its new raft of anti-union laws.
The Howard government and the Office of Employment Advocate (OEA) are pushing for employers to adopt common individual contracts ("pattern agreements") for workers doing the same work.
At the same time they are moving to outlaw and abolish pattern bargaining whereby trade unions maintain common or similar wage rates and working conditions across workplaces in the same industry. There is no contradiction in the government's approach.
The aim is to completely decentralise and deregulate the fixation of wages and working conditions, remove the union from the workplace and leave individual workers at the mercy of ruthless, profit-chasing employers.
Following the Government's stripping of awards back to "20 allowable matters" and increased reliance on enterprise bargaining agreements, a number of trade unions have turned to "pattern bargaining", negotiating common agreements with a number of employers, quite often at the same time.
Retaining common wages and conditions at the different workplaces and within workplaces, prevents employers from pitting worker against worker to drive down wages and conditions.
This division and competition between workers — a race to the bottom — is what Howard and his big business mates want. So now the government is set to ban pattern bargaining when it controls the Senate from July 1. The Office of Employment Advocate will police the ban.
Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews is proposing massive fines on rank and file workers, and unions, who pursue pattern agreements. It is already illegal to "coerce" workers to join trade unions or pressure them to take industrial action.
Employers are becoming more arrogant and ruthless, both in their demands on the Howard government and in their treatment of workers.
Howard and Andrews are full of rhetoric about freedom, choice, flexibility and fairness, especially when it comes to promoting Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs).
In reality, individual workers seeking employment have no freedom or choice when it comes to "negotiating" an AWA with an employer. And there is nothing fair about it. The Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA), whose main tasks are to assist employers in replacing collective union agreements by non-union individual contracts and policing trade unions, makes this very clear.
It says: "An employer may generally make an offer of employment subject to a new employee signing the AWA. The new employee is then free to accept or refuse the offer of employment under the terms and conditions contained in the AWA."
In the case of the unemployed, particularly those on benefits who are sent to an employer by a job agency, there is not even the option of walking out the door if they don't like the "agreement".
But that's not all. The boss is also protected by the OEA if a worker attempts to negotiate an extra few dollars or better conditions. If an employer does not offer all employees doing "the same kind of work an AWA with the same terms", then they will have to convince the OEA that they have a valid reason for not doing so.
So pattern individual contracts are permitted, but not pattern EBAs. What is the difference?
Pattern EBAs are negotiated between employers and trade unions, industrial action is possible to support trade union claims during negotiations, and the agreement is an agreement (workers vote to accept or to knock it back).
But when it comes to pattern AWAs, there is no negotiation, an individual worker has no bargaining power and the outcome is dictated by the boss on a take-it-or-you're-out-the-door basis.
At present AWAs must be approved by the OEA before they become legally binding. The OEA is supposed to apply a "no disadvantage test" which means that "your overall wages and conditions, under the AWA, will not be less than the overall wages and conditions you would get under any award/s and relevant laws which apply to your work".
This test has not stopped call centre rates being slashed by as much as $10,000 a year, or employers using AWAs to dodge penalty rates and allowances. The government is planning to speed up the process and possibly remove the test altogether in the case of pattern AWAs.
In addition, the Employment Advocate, Peter McIlwaith, recently unveiled a pattern AWA for small business that does away with the concept of a 40- or 38-hour week, removes overtime entitlements and job security.
Using the double talk it has become notorious for, the Government refers to this process as offering "choice" and "flexibility": "choice" meaning no choice and "flexibility" meaning flexibility for the boss.