The Guardian June 14, 2000


Editorial:
Trade union movement to keep its powder dry

Peter Reith's further attack on trade union rights by outlawing what has 
become known as "pattern bargaining" has been put on ice  for the time 
being. The Democrats' leader Senator Meg Lees and Workplace Relations 
spokesperson Senator Andrew Murray have declared that the legislation "goes 
too far".

But it is clear that the threat has not been abandoned, either by Peter 
Reith or from possible backsliding by the Australian Democrats. In a press 
release the Democrats make it clear that they are not in favour of 
industry-wide negotiations conducted with employers by trade unions and are 
wedded to enterprise by enterprise negotiations. This is what Peter Reith 
and employers want.

Meg Lees describes industry-wide strikes as "unjustified". She claims that 
enterprise negotiations had provided "win-win" outcomes for employers and 
workers.

One can only assume that Meg Lees lives in some fairyland. Enterprise 
agreements have led to massive job losses in many industries, longer hours 
for those in full-time employment, unprecedented casualisation, a decline 
in wage rates for women and the loss of many working conditions such as 
penalty rates for overtime and weekend work. On the other hand, employers 
have achieved unprecedented productivity gains and are making a killing in 
the form of increased profits.

She also claims that enterprise agreements which focussed "more on 
productivity, had allowed real wages to increase by more than they would 
have otherwise" and had delivered "real jobs growth and fewer disputes".

Not to be outdone, Andrew Murray makes the claim that "contrived common 
expiry date[s] for hundreds of enterprise agreements in an industry, may 
allow protected action to be taken across an industry for the first time in 
Australian history." (emphasis added).

Senator Murray obviously knows little of Australia's industrial history. 
From the first formation of the Conciliation and Arbitration system, 
Australian workers worked under industry-wide Awards which were 
comprehensive in their coverage and covered every worker in an industry 
whether they belonged to a trade union or not. There were many industry-
wide campaigns and strike struggles during this time. These were 
responsible for building higher wage levels and working conditions. It was 
industry-wide struggles that brought about the 40-hour week during the 
1950s.

The statements by Senators Meg Lees and Andrew Murray make it clear that 
they are strong advocates of enterprise agreements that divide up trade 
union membership into scores or even hundreds of different enterprise 
fragments.

It is this system that has contributed to the weakening of the trade union 
movement, the loss of conditions and wages levels and has consumed the 
resources of many trade unions as they attempt to service one enterprise 
after another.

The attempts by a number of unions to re-establish some sanity in their 
relations with employers and re-establish the unity of the membership 
working in the same industry but in different enterprises, has to be 
strongly supported.

The acceptance of enterprise agreements in the first place was an 
unfortunate loss of concentration or maybe shortsightedness on the part of 
the leadership of the trade union movement.

A massive trade union rally was held in Sydney last week to protest against 
the Reith legislation and another was planned for Melbourne. As a 
consequence of the decision by the Democrats the rally was "put on ice".

Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary Leigh Hubbard said that "Victorian 
unions stand ready to take mass action should either the Government or the 
Democrats introduce or support further legislation to limit the right of 
workers to take action on a multi-employer basis or further attempt to 
restrict the discretion of the Industrial Relations Commission or the 
Federal Court."

This is a timely warning. The Democrats are looking to the present 
Industrial Commission to enforce the system of "enterprise agreements" and 
are threatening to "revisit the situation", should the struggle for 
"pattern bargaining" succeed.

It needs to be remembered that the Australian Democrats voted for Reith's 
first wave of industrial legislation and they are also responsible for the 
GST which is about to devastate the living standards of millions of low 
wage earners, pensioners and other welfare beneficiaries as from July 1.
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