The Guardian May 24, 2000


Unite to fight:
Reith's new anti-union laws

by Anna Pha

Close to 1,000 union delegates protested outside the Federal Court on 
Monday this week against the Federal Government's anti-union legislation. 
Delegates condemned the new Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2000 and 
called on the Australian Democrats to reject it in the Senate. While the 
rally was being held outside the Court, inside three metal trade union 
officials were facing penalties for contempt of court relating to their 
failure to cancel recent mass meetings in accordance with court orders.

One of the Government's (and employers') principal aims in stripping awards 
and shifting the focus to enterprise agreements and individual contracts is 
to prevent collective bargaining and united action by workers.

To counter the impact of the decentralised system which weakens their 
bargaining power, a number of unions have adopted pattern bargaining, with 
united struggles across workplaces or an industry around common demands.

This approach was used recently by building unions to win a shorter working 
week in the Victorian construction industry.

Other States and industries are set to follow the success of that campaign.

It is central to the manufacturing unions' Campaign 2000, which seeks to 
set an industry framework for negotiations in the metal manufacturing 
industry in Victoria.

Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith introduced the new Bill in 
Parliament on May 11 and hopes to have it in force by July 1, this year!

The Bill's main thrust is to outlaw pattern bargaining (making common 
demands on a number of employers), white-ant the concept of "protected 
action" and make it easier for employers to sue unions for damages arising 
out of strike or other forms of industrial action.

(Under the Workplace Relations Act, "protected action" during "enterprise 
bargaining periods" means workers and unions cannot be sued under common 
law by employers for damages arising out of their actions.)

Pattern bargaining outlawed

The Bill aims to "ensure that protected action during negotiations for a 
certified agreement is only available to members of [an] organisation of 
employees whose employment is to be covered by the proposed certified 
agreement."

If any other person not covered by that agreement takes action, then all 
industrial action loses its protected status.

This means if any worker who is covered by a different agreement or an 
individual contract refuses to do a striking workers' job, refuses to cross 
a picket line or takes any other form of action, then the protected status 
is lost.

It applies to action in other workplaces and solidarity (secondary boycott) 
actions.

In the case of pattern bargaining, under the proposed laws the Industrial 
Relations Commission (IRC) must terminate the bargaining period. It 
may then refuse to grant or place conditions on a new bargaining period.

The only common demands that can be made are those that cannot be pursued 
at the enterprise level or give effect to a Full Bench decision 
establishing national standards (e.g. safety-net wage rise).

Deny "protected action"

The original Workplace Relations Act already places serious limitations on 
what industrial action can be considered as "protected".

The Bill goes further in curbing trade union rights to collectively bargain 
and back claims with industrial action with provisions for "bargaining 
periods" to be suspended  what Reith calls a "cooling off" period.

"The Commission must, by order, suspend the bargaining period for a 
period specified in the order" if an employer applies to the Commission for 
the period to be suspended and the Commission "considers that suspending 
the bargaining period would be beneficial because it would assist the 
negotiating parties to resolve the matters at issue". Also that it would 
not be contrary to the public interest (Section 170MWB) (Emphasis added).

The suspension of the bargaining period removes the "protected" status of 
the actions.

This is a win-win situation for employers: they win if the union has to 
cease industrial action and they win when the action continues because they 
can sue the union and its members.

It would certainly weaken the capacity of unions to protect existing 
entitlements or to make gains.

The only positive point is that unions might be able to apply to have a 
lockout suspended.

Ordering actions to ceased

At present the IRC has the power to issue orders for "unprotected" 
industrial action to cease or not commence. The Commission uses its 
discretion.

Under the new Bill the IRC must issue such orders if the action is 
found to be "unprotected".

The Commission must first determine whether the action is (or would be) 
"unprotected" and then make the necessary orders within 48 hours. If it 
cannot deal with it within 48 hours then it must make an interim 
order to stop the action or prevent it from occurring.

In cases where employers are trying to sue unions and workers for damages 
in State Supreme Courts, unions would be prevented from seeking injunctions 
in the Federal Court  where they have had a measure of success.

The Bill is being rushed through Parliament at the behest of the powerful 
Australian Industry Group representing manufacturing industry employers  
the Bill's first target being Campaign 2000.

The closing date for submissions to the Senate Committee was May 22. There 
is only one day of hearings, May 26, with the Committee due to report to 
the Senate on June 5.

Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary Leigh Hubbard said: "It looks for 
all the world like the Howard Government and Peter Reith have an 
arrangement with the Democrats to steamroll this Bill through Parliament.

"This issue of pattern bargaining is of vital importance to the trade union 
movement and yet the so-called consultation is to be concluded within two 
weeks.

"The community should understand that every major advance achieved by 
unions over the last hundred years, including the 38 hour week, 
superannuation, maternity leave and many others have only been achieved 
because workers across industries have joined together to campaign for 
those conditions.

"We call on the Democrats to support a `real inquiry' and not a `sham 
inquiry' into this important issue. We also call on them to reject the 
Bill."

Back to index page