The Guardian 25 May, 2005

Organise against Howard’s anti-union laws

As delegates prepared to meet in NSW to plan actions against the Howard government’s assault on their unions, the Federal Cabinet was putting the finishing touches to the legislation which will launch an unprecedented attack on organised labour. The state-wide combined NSW union delegates’ meeting comes at a crucial time as unions around the country organise to defend their basic rights once the Howard government takes control of the Senate from July 1.

There is a need to advance the various actions at the state level and organise a national day of action. A massive national demonstration by workers against Howard’s laws will send a strong message to the government. In addition, there is the need to build a broad alliance, to win the support of local communities, welfare groups, religious organisations, migrant communities and political parties that oppose the Howard government’s anti-union laws.

The main aim of the new laws is to wipe out collective bargaining and create union-free workplaces where bosses are free to dictate wages and working conditions in a virtually unregulated environment. The various government tribunals and commissions and occupational health and safety inspectorates would be wound back.

There is no room for trade unions or collective bargaining in the government’s nightmare vision for Australian workplaces.

The new laws will take previous legislation further down the path of dismantling the 100-year-old award system.

Centralised awards governing legally binding, uniform wages and conditions across workplaces will be further stripped back to 16 or less “allowable matters”. Superannuation, leave for jury service, long service leave and notice of termination are at the top of the hit list.

The aim of the government is to later replace awards by legislation (under corporations law) for the barest of minimum leave and working hours. Minimum wages are to be determined by legislation or a Low Pay Commission with members appointed by the government.

The government is pouring millions more dollars into its already totally discredited Office of Employment Advocate (OEA) with the aim of spreading the cynically misnamed “Australian Workplace Agreements” (AWAs).

AWAs — better described as individual, non-union work contracts — are seen by the government and its employer mates as one of the principle weapons to clobber workers and trade unions over the head. They are to replace union negotiated enterprise bargaining agreements and awards.

AWAs are not agreements. They are not negotiated. Individual workers have a choice between agreeing to sign them or having no job. Workers sign on individually. That is the only sense in which they are “individual”. Most of them are pro-forma documents drafted by the government’s own OEA or employers and their worker-bashing consultants.

The states are also being told that funding for water infrastructure and commercial constructions projects is conditional on acceptance of the government’s anti-worker agenda.

Trade union rights gouged

Howard and his Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews have a sharp understanding of labour-capital relations. They understand the principle sources of strength for workers in defending themselves and know where to strike the blows.

Apart from attacking collective bargaining, they are focusing much of their legislation on the key rights of organising and taking strike or other united action.

It is doing this through such means as virtually outlawing strikes; imposing compulsory secret ballots before strikes; placing heavy restrictions on right of entry for union representatives; imposing AWAs which exclude unions from the equation; curbing the ability of unions to recruit and organise on the job, and imposing restrictions on political use of union funds.

An individual worker is powerless in the face of an employer, whether it be a small employer or the likes of Rio Tinto, BHP, McDonalds, and other corporate giants. Workers’ source of power — the only thing that stands between them and the absolute rule of the boss — is their ability to unite in unions, to organise, to take collective action.

There are many questions about Andrews’ plans to override the state systems and create a national industrial relations system using corporations law. Legal challenges are being considered by state governments. But the outcomes of any such actions are totally unpredictable and workers cannot afford to rely on strictly legal avenues.

The defeat of this legislation and the government’s and employers’ agenda to take back workers’ hard won gains and rights can only be achieved by struggle, starting on the ground, in workplaces and in communities.

Delegates meetings Fri May 27:

  • Masonic Centre, Cnr Goulburn and Castlereagh Sts;

  • Parramatta Leagues Club, O’Connell St, Parramatta;

  • Steelers Football Club,Burrelli St, Wollongong;

  • Macquarie Room, Panthers Club, Mibung Rd, Cardiff;

  • Riverina Australian Rules Club, Wagga Wagga;

  • Goulburn Workers’ Club, Goulburn;

  • Dudley Hotel, Stewart St, Bathurst.

    Contact your union or Unions NSW for details.

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