The Guardian 25 April, 2007

Rudd retreats on IR promises

Thousands of people demonstrated in Sydney last Sunday, united in their desire to remove the Howard Coalition government and see its industrial relations laws ripped up and replaced by new pro-worker legislation protecting their rights and their trade unions.

There is a feeling of disquiet arising from the proposed principles outlined by Kevin Rudd a few days earlier when speaking to the National Press Club in Canberra. He declared his proposed legislation to be "non-negotiable" suggesting that he was not going to have any negotiations with the trade union movement or even with the National Conference of the ALP which is to take place next weekend — April 28-29.

Many unionists were stunned and disappointed by what was promised. Some unions have spoken out strongly in defence of the basic trade union rights that the ALP leader is seeking to outlaw. These centred around the right to strike, industry bargaining and unfair dismissal although there are many other aspects of industrial legislation.

Southern States Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union Dean Mighell spoke out against the tough limits on the right to strike, the ban on industry-wide strikes and compulsory ballots prior to any strike action.

"We will be putting it on the other unions: do not accept anti-union behaviour. The right to strike, [and] the right to campaign for industry agreements are fundamental", Mighell said.

Right to strike

"There can be no going back to the industrial culture of an earlier age", Mr Rudd warned, in a reference to trade unions taking on and standing up to employers. "That is why a further reform for the industrial relations system we propose will be to outlaw industrial action unless there is a secret ballot.

"The only time industrial action will be legally permitted is if it is taken in pursuit of a collective enterprise agreement during a bargaining period. And even then it will only be protected from legal penalty if it is authorised by the employees who will be taking the action through a secret ballot supervised by the independent industrial umpire.

"Under our laws, employees will not be able to strike during the term of a collective agreement. They will not be able to strike unless there has been genuine good faith bargaining. They will not be able to strike in support of an industry wide agreement. And they will not be able to strike unless it has been approved by a mandatory secret ballot", said Mr Rudd in his address to the Press Club.

In attacking Doug Cameron, Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Rudd claimed that Mr Cameron should "get with it" and that he had to "catch up with the 21st century".

"The right to strike is sacrosanct", Communist Party of Australia (CPA) General Secretary Peter Symon told The Guardian in commenting on Mr Rudd’s speech. "It is a fundamental right, how and when it is exercised should be determined by the democratic processes of the union. Taking strike action is not something that unions treat lightly.

Far from Mr Cameron being out of date it is John Howard and now Kevin Rudd who would like to take the rights of workers back to the 18th century. Their views are certainly a violation of ILO conventions", he said.

"Employers have the power to hire and fire, to open and shut workplaces, to stand-down workers as has just been done by GMH in Melbourne. Employers are not obliged to conduct a secret ballot of workers on whether they should be stood-down.

"Workers as individuals are powerless in dealing with their bosses, that is why they organise and join trade unions. The source of strength of a trade union to protect the interests of its members comes from their collective right to be able to withdraw their labour", Mr Symon said.

"Trade unions can use that power to protect and improve workers’ wages and working conditions, to ensure safe working conditions, to protect workers who might be victimised or treated badly by a boss. Trade unions protect the interests of workers and their families outside of the workplace as well. They take up social issues such as health and education, environmental questions, indigenous rights, peace, women’s rights, and act in solidarity with workers around the world. They are also expected by the Labor Party leadership to campaign for the election of an ALP government. Having done that they are then expected by Mr Rudd to lie down quietly and accept the attacks of the employers, the loss of working conditions, being sacked or stood-down at the whim of the employers.

"The trade union movement cannot accept the limitation of strike action to periods of bargaining for an enterprise agreement. They may need to take action if an employer is not paying correct wage rates or fails to make regular superannuation contributions on behalf of its workforce. If conditions are unsafe, a worker is killed, a union delegate sacked, or for any other reason deemed necessary, it is critical that a union can take some sort of action, including strike action", Mr Symon said.

Brian Boyd, Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary, was just as adamant about the right to strike: "I’m arguing that there’s still an unfettered right to strike, no limitations on it; we might want to stop work to give consideration to the Iraq war, for instance."

Unfair dismissals

Unions were also disappointed with Mr Rudd’s proposed changes to the unfair dismissal legislation. "For businesses employing more than 15 people, employees will be exempt from unfair dismissal laws for six months", he said.

"Labor recognises, too, that small business owners don’t usually have the time or expertise to go through complex procedures of repeatedly warning an employee about unsatisfactory performance, spacing written warnings correctly apart and complying with other legalistic processes", said Mr Rudd. A worker will only be able to make an unfair dismissal claim after working for 12 months, and the claim will be based on whether the employer abided by a Fair Dismissal Code which Mr Rudd said Labor would draw up in consultation with small business. No role for unions is mentioned.

In other words, new employees would be subjected to a probation period of six or 12 months depending on the size of the business. Only then would a worker have the right to challenge an unfair dismissal. This would give bosses, in particular in industries that have a high turnover of labour or exploit youth on lower wages, all the freedom they want to intimidate, stand-over and victimise workers who may join a union or demand their entitlements. It is a recipe for a very vulnerable and insecure workforce.

National IR system

Mr Rudd is promising private sector employers a uniform national industrial relations system with the expectation that states will refer their rights in this area to the Commonwealth or, as NSW is proposing, agree to harmonise their laws to accord with Kevin Rudd’s prescriptions. At present the remaining state systems afford far greater protection and trade union rights than what is being promised under a national system.

Repeating the Accord

Mr Rudd claimed that "Labor’s way forward is a better way forward for both employers and employees". He is putting forward once again the same arguments as were used to sell to unions the 1983 Accord between the Hawke Labor government with its claims that that labour and capital have common interests.

Everyone today acknowledges that the Accord was a disaster for the trade union movement. Union membership plummeted, the award system was undermined, wages were frozen and conditions were lost. The Accord, by having critically weakened the trade union movement, opened the door to Howard’s WorkChoices legislation.

While Mr Rudd’s statement does provide some information on the Labor leader’s intentions and his autocratic thinking, is very scant in detail and does not give any indication of policy on a number of other major questions. Gone is the talk of "ripping up WorkChoices" In its place are some inadequate amendments to existing IR legislation.

What’s missing

Without having further detail it is impossible to make a final assessment of Mr Rudd’s proposals. Would, for example, awards play a role, and if so, what would they contain? What are the penalties for "illegal" strike action? Would employers still be able to sue workers for damages? Would the Australian Industrial Relations Commission be abolished? Will trade unions continue to be legally recognised and if so by what body? Will trade union officials have the right of entry to workplaces and the right to organise workers on the job with shop-committees? Will the wages of women workers be equalised and will they have paid maternity leave?

The lack of detail on the process of union recognition and the possibility of employer created unions and non-union collective agreements is worrying.

The statement is also silent on the secondary boycott and other anti-union provisions of the Trades Practices Act, the Building Industry Improvement Act, and many other aspects of the present system which are facilitating the employer offensive to cut wages and working conditions and weaken trade unions.

No wonder there is unease in union ranks with workers facing the choice of speaking out openly and challenging the Rudd proposals or remaining silent or tentative in order to maintain unity in the belief that it will enhance the ALP’s electoral prospects.

Rudd’s statement took many ALP members by surprise but if trade union delegations take a strong principled stand at next weekends’ ALP Conference, and exert their independent voice in support of the interests of their members, there could be some very worthwhile decisions.

Laura Tingle writing in the Financial Review said: "Read the rhetoric in Kevin Rudd’s speech and you might be astonished by its pro-business and anti-worker tone."

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