The Guardian 22 June, 2005

All strikes to be outlawed

Anna Pha

The Howard government is now considering proposals to completely outlaw all strikes and other industrial action in the oil, gas and power industries and other essential service industries. The government is mounting a multi-pronged attack on the rights of workers in different industries to take strike action, without openly declaring its aim of banning all forms of industrial action.

The proposed new laws place iron-fisted restrictions on the rights of workers to defend themselves and their rights. They expose individual workers as well as their unions and union officials to massive compensation claims from anyone who claims to have been affected by their actions.

There would be NO cap on the amount a court could order be paid by workers or trade unions as compensation to any person found by a court to be affected. In addition there are provisions for crippling civil penalties of up to $22,000 for individual workers and $110,000 for trade unions. This would see workers facing the loss of their homes and other personal belongings.

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 sets out to retrospectively (from March 9, 2005) outlaw industrial action taken by unions in pursuit of a new agreement before the previous agreement has reached its nominal expiry date.

Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews made the government’s intent very clear in his Second Reading speech to Parliament: "… no industrial action can take place during the life of an agreement" on a construction site.

The anti-strike proposal for the energy industries was put together by a business taskforce with advice from law firm Clayton Utz. The Business Council of Australia and Kevin Andrews conducted meetings behind closed doors, essentially briefing him on what the corporations expect when the government gains control of the Senate on July 1.

Furthermore, there are plans to force workers and unions into automatic "mediation" when an enterprise agreement expires.

The government would also like to extend the Trades Practices Act (TPA) to cover any action by unions. This question was raised during the Cole Royal Commission into the building and construction industry. Currently most of the Act’s provisions do not apply to trade unions, except for the notorious secondary boycott (and a primary boycott section directed against the Maritime Union of Australia) Sections 45 D&E. Secondary boycotts are where the employer affected is not the employer of those taking the action, such as when workers in one union take solidarity action in support of other workers. A classic example is the refusal of truck drivers to drive through the picket of striking workers.

Under the Act it is illegal for businesses to take anti-competitive action. Prohibited outright are most price agreements and price fixing arrangements. This raises questions about collective bargaining (workers do not compete against each other) and its outcomes (price of labour).

It raises more serious and immediate concerns for individual contractors and pattern bargaining, especially in the building and construction industry where workers, deemed legally not to be employees, could be most vulnerable if they attempt to negotiate uniform wages and working conditions.

There are a host of other measures, such as compulsory secret ballots, restrictions on the length of "protected action", that make legal industrial action virtually impossible.

The government intends to wipe out any right to strike and is planning the introduction of penal powers to sue unions and impose financial penalties on individual workers. This would give employers a powerful weapon to force workers onto individual contracts.

The government has earmarked tens of millions of dollars to help employers force workers to sign non-union contracts (AWAs), by making it legal for the boss to say, "sign on the dotted line or you’re out of a job".

Awards are to be stripped to the barest minimum of conditions. Under the punitive regime workplace health and safety will be tossed aside as conditions in workplaces are run down. Already many employers around the country are testing their arm, seeing the government’s union bashing as an invitation to attack their workforce.

Boeing Australia’s maintenance plant at the RAAF’s Williamtown Air Base near Newcastle has shut out workers refusing to sign individual contracts.

Car detailers at Perth Airport are standing up to threats and abuse, in their battle against Hertz for a collective union agreement providing union wages and penalty rates.

The West Australian newspaper is trying to force "No-Strike AWAs" on its workforce and has
told prospective new employees they can only have a job if they sign the individual
contract. (see WA story on AWAs)

The ACTU, state labour councils and individual unions are organising actions and the ACTU "Your Rights at Work" campaign has a petition on its website in the Your Rights at Work section. Party members who have taken the petition out into the community have so far been overwhelmed with the response from people.

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