The Guardian 16 March, 2005

Industrial Relations Special:
Defeat Howard's anti-union laws

Anna Pha

The Howard government has wasted no time since its re-election in preparing for a massive assault on workers and their trade unions. It has resurrected a number of bills that had been blocked by the Senate and is in the process of gaining cabinet approval for new, more far-reaching legislation. The objective of the bills is to destroy the trade union movement and wipe out years of hard won gains made by workers and their unions in struggle. The bills threaten the wages, working conditions and jobs of all Australian workers. They aim to:

  • Strengthen the hand of employers by forcing more workers to "negotiate" wages and conditions on an individual basis (no union representation)

  • Strip awards back to even fewer "allowable matters" enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) are to be stripped and pattern bargaining (common claims across workplaces) outlawed

  • Increase the numbers of "independent contractors"

  • Outlaw industrial action is to be during the life of an enterprise agreement. Introduce massive fines for unions and individual workers taking industrial action with one objective being the bankrupting of unions

  • Slash the minimum wage and abolish the state industrial relations systems. Employers are to be given a free hand to intensify their exploitation of workers, without "interference" from government bodies or trade unions.

    Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews is continuing a process of decentralisation and deregulation of the workforce that was commenced by the Hawke/Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and 1990s. They began the decentralisation of the determination of wages and working conditions, overseeing the promotion of EBAs as replacements for awards, and started down the path that led to the introduction of individual, non-union contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements AWAs).

    They adopted an approach based on co-operation with employers which has left the union movement in a far weaker position.

    The Howard government after its election in 1996 set about savaging the union movement.

    Andrews slotted into the union-busting portfolio as though it were tailor-made for him. He is viciously anti-worker.

    Employers seize opportunity

    Big business, with an ultra reactionary Coalition Government in control of both houses of parliament and what they see as a historically weakened trade union movement, are pushing for John Howard and Kevin Andrews to strike hard now. Over the past 20-30 years trade union membership has declined from a peak of around 60 per cent to 22 per cent.

    The Business Council of Australia (BCA), which represents the largest corporations, and other employer organisations such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), have delivered their "wish lists" to the government. And they are about to be fulfilled.

    Now Before Parliament

    A number of previously rejected bills are presently before Parliament. One of the most important of these is the misnamed "Fair Dismissal" bill (formerly the Unfair Dismissal Bill). This new bill will exempt small businesses (less than 20 employees) from unfair dismissal laws. In effect it means employers can sack workers any time, for any reason, without fear of legal redress.

    Workers will have less job security and be more vulnerable to intimidation and harassment. There will be nothing to stop a boss sacking workers who refuse to do long hours of unpaid overtime or work a double shift. Women, in particular, will be hard hit they are more likely to be subjected to sexual pressures which, if refused, may result in dismissal.

    Small businesses with less than 15 employees also stand to gain by being exempted from making redundancy payments. So it will not only be easier to sack workers, but much cheaper.

    There is also legislation to impose severe restrictions on the right of entry of union representatives to workplaces. The government is proposing that right of entry be severely curbed.

    Building and construction industry

    The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005, arises out of a bill originally presented in 2003. As can be expected from the Howard government, the only "improvement" that could result is in employer profits. For workers it will be a killer in every meaning of the word.

    The bill aims 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. This action would not be "protected" action, leaving unions and individual workers and trade union officials open to massive compensation claims from anyone who claims to have been affected by it. It would also be "unlawful" with crippling civil penalties of up to $22,000 for individual workers and $110,000 for trade unions. There would be NO cap on the amount a court could order to be paid by workers or trade unions and their officials as compensation to any person affected by the action.

    The aim of the retrospective nature of the legislation is to stop building unions from negotiating new agreements now, before their expiry date, in order to set wages and working conditions in concrete before the Howard government gets control of the Senate in July. The government is pressuring employers not to sign before the new legislation is passed.

    Kevin Andrews made the intent of the bill 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. And in the very limited circumstances that "protected" industrial action may be taken, payment by employers to workers for the period of action is outlawed. Industrial action is so broad as to cover virtually any act in the workplace that affects the company's performance. The maximum penalties are $33,000 for workers and officials, and $110,000 for trade unions and employers.

    There will also be a new Australian Building and Construction Commission to replace the Building Industry Taskforce to police and enforce the new regime.

    National system

    Both the BCA and ACCI want the state industrial relations systems dismantled.

    The BCA is pushing for state governments to hand over their powers to the federal government. The ACCI is pushing for the federal government to use its Corporations Powers under the Constitution to override the states. Either way Andrews is set to use corporations law to provide only the barest of minimum working conditions and wages in the workplace.

    The millions of workers presently covered by state awards could overnight lose their award provisions. This is what occurred in Victoria when Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett abolished the state industrial relations system.

    As under Kennett they would be left with as few as five or six minimal legislated rights regarding a few basic conditions such as working hours, public holidays, wages, annual and sick leave and meal breaks.

    Reductions in minimum wage

    Andrews is also planning to remove the powers the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) has to set minimum wage rates through national test cases. Instead an "expert" panel of government appointees would decide on whether the minimum wage should be reduced, frozen or increased.

    The panel will base its decisions on economic and employment opportunities and "not price people out of work" a euphemism for very low wages wages that are so attractive to employers that they would not go offshore for cheaper labour. The minimum wage would not be linked to the cost of living or needs of workers.

    The AIRC's role will be weakened in other ways and the whole federal system of which it is part, eventually abolished, when the national system is in place and fully tested.

    Limiting industrial action

    Apart from numerous provisions to restrict the occasions on which "protected" industrial action could be taken, the government plans to make it more difficult to take such action.

    These measures include:

  • Secret ballots prior to action

  • Cooling off periods during action and limits on length of action with cooling off periods in between

  • Suspension of action on the application of a third party (e.g. a parent when teachers are on strike)

  • Penalties to increase for breaches of AIRC directions or the Act.

    Trade union rights: Stage 2

    When the corporations law has been tried and tested, and the state systems demolished, the government would like to move onto the next stage of scrapping the Workplace Relations Act and along with it, the AIRC, awards, EBAs, trade union recognition and associated rights.

    Workers would be left with common law contracts or the barest of minimum wages and conditions as legislated for by the federal government. When they had a dispute with an employer, there would be no tribunal or court to go to, instead the highly legalistic, slow moving and prohibitively expensive civil court system. Unions would be quickly bankrupted pursuing disputes in the courts and individual workers would have no hope whatsoever.

    The only alternatives are industrial action (which the government is trying to make cripplingly expensive) or defeating the legislation as the union movement did in the 1960s when up against equally formidable penal provisions.

    Defeat these laws

    The longer the struggle to defeat the legislation is left the more difficult it will be. Labor leader Kim Beazley has already indicated he is not in disagreement with much of the legislation and will only seek a few amendments.

    The trade union movement has a vital role in educating workers and the general public about the new laws and should not delay in mobilising opposition to them.

    These laws must be defeated. And they can be defeated by a massive struggle involving the whole trade union movement in unity with left and progressive forces including members and branches of the ALP, other political parties including the Communist Party of Australia and other left, progressive and democratic organisations and individuals.

    May Day provides and excellent opportunity for a national day of action to defeat the legislation.

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