The Guardian 5 September, 2007


Is Labor policy "WorkChoices Mark II"?

ALP leader Kevin Rudd has announced more details of his IR legislation. On one issue after another he and Julia Gillard have retreated in the face of big and small business campaigning. Their new proposals are a far cry from the earlier Labor commitment to "tear up WorkChoices". Rudd’s policies now look much more like "WorkChoices Mark II" than a so-promised "forward with fairness" system. We are hearing much talk of "flexibility"– but it’s flexibility that swings in favour of employers.

A central necessity and right for trade unions, if they are to properly represent their members, is the right of entry by trade union officials to all workplaces, the right of trade unionists to organise and act collectively and the right for their members to strike. Successive governments, both Liberal and Labor, have whittled away these rights.

With control of the Senate John Howard has wielded a veritable axe on those rights, and Kevin Rudd’s election policies indicate they will not reverse Howard’s demolition. Even the massive financial penalties and long jail terms that can now be used against trade unions, their leaders and organisers that the Howard government has introduced will not be done away with.

On unfair dismissals Rudd has hedged his talk of restoring this right, but his proposed legislation leaves so many loopholes for employers that it too, is nonsense.

An employer can merely make an allegation to the police that an employee has committed a theft, a fraud or violence in the workplace to be let off the hook. The allegation does not have to be proven in a court. It’s a monstrous denial of natural justice. The right of innocence until proven guilty is thrown out the window.

Employers will have a year in which to sack staff before any unfair dismissal claim can be lodged. An employer can sack a worker without compensation in cases of "genuine redundancy" — meaning any downturn in business or the introduction of new technology. It’s just another case of "flexibility" which decisively favours employers.

Initially Rudd promised to do away with AWAs but he has now backed down on this — they are to stay for at least five more years. Workers who have been forced on to unfair AWAs — and their purpose was always to slash wage rates and other conditions — are stuck with them. It’s an incentive to employers to accelerate their bullying tactics to force workers on to AWAs prior to the election.

After that, the ALP has another trick up its sleeve by providing for "individual common law contracts" — which are little better than AWAs. Both AWAs and common law contracts will override awards and collective agreements.

Secondary boycotts — which are solidarity actions by one union in support of workers in another industry — will continue to stay.

Trade unions may also be excluded in negotiations even when a workplace has union members. Julia Gillard told the Australian Financial Review that "under Labor it will be possible for an employer which employs both union members and non-union members to make an enterprise agreement that the union plays no role in making and with which the union does not agree … Unions have no automatic right to be involved in collective enterprise bargaining", she said.

So under Labor’s proposed legislation there is no automatic right to negotiate for its members, no right of entry to a workplace, no right of workers to strike, no right of solidarity action, no right to come off an unfair AWA short of 5 years and no real right to claim unfair dismissal.

There is yet another hurdle — the Senate. Unless there is a national agreement to exchange preferences between the Labor Party and the Greens a Liberal-dominated Senate is likely to remain. So far the ALP has refused to make such an agreement with the Greens. The Labor Party should be called upon to make such an agreement.

Let’s be sure to vote Howard out and vote a Rudd government in — but vote for candidates who are worker and trade union friendly first. On issue after issue Kevin Rudd has echoed Howard’s policies but voters don’t want to get rid of Howard only to have more of the same from a Rudd Labor government.

That’ why the trade union campaigns need to be kept up irrespective of which party is elected.

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