Fair Work Australia is Work Choices lite

By Kathy Newnam

[The following article is based on a report on the Australian political situation presented to the first congress of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, held over the June 6-8 weekend.]

If you believed the headlines in early June you’d almost think that Australia was going to avoid the global economic crisis. “Australia can’t even muster a recession” read the June 4 headline of the Australian’s business pages. This crowing came on the back of the national accounts figures released on June 3 which recorded the economy expanding by 0.4% in the March quarter.

While such headlines paint a different picture, even the Rudd government has been talking down the possibility that a recession can be avoided. Treasurer Wayne Swan told the media on June 4: “There’s a technical definition, but what’s important is to acknowledge is how serious the challenges are ahead, and in the figures yesterday we can see those challenges”. Stephen Long, the ABC’s economics correspondent, told ABC Radio’s June 3 PM program that headlines such as “Australia avoids recession”, only confirms the maxim of “lies, damned lies and stats. Yes the economy expanded in the first three months of the year, but for the wrong reasons. Australia dodged a technical recession, but only because exports grew a bit, and imports collapsed. The way these things are measured, that meant a very big boost to gross domestic product … Australia’s economy expanded on paper because of its sickness, not because of its health.”

Explaining why this was so in an interview with ABC TV’s June 3 Lateline program, Long said: “The main reason why the economy is still expanding is because imports have collapsed, and the way the GDP accounts are worked out, that’s a positive contribution to gross domestic product. And why have imports collapsed? Because business investment has crashed. That’s not a sign of a healthy economy …

“Now, if you look at those trade numbers, well, exports grew by 2.7%, largely because of the rise in grain exports, farm exports on higher volumes but lower prices, but imports fell by 7%, and the main reason they fell is because businesses aren’t investing, they’re not bringing in capital equipment, they’re not restocking their shelves, they’re running down inventories. The run down in inventories didn’t even make a difference to growth this quarter, because it was about the same as the last quarter. But if you add them together, there’s been a massive destocking and running down of inventories by business because of the situation that they anticipate in the economy. So we, in effect, have a business recession … if there’s no business investment, then it feeds into higher unemployment, and that’s where most people will feel the downturn.”

The official unemployment rate was 5.7% in May, up from 5.5% in April. A 26,200 fall in full-time workers in May was all but offset by a 24,500 rise in part-time workers, as employers force workers onto “short” working weeks, with commensurate cuts in take-home pay. However, in its May budget the government forecast that this situation would not last, and large-scale sackings will occur in the coming financial year. The Treasury department estimated an unemployment rate of 8.25% by mid-2010.

Class-collaboratonist union officials

PM Kevin Rudd wrote in the February issue of the Monthly that he intends to “save capitalism from itself”. This will require making working people pay the price and in this task he is being eagerly assisted by the class-collaborationist trade union bureaucracy. In a speech to the ACTU congress on June 2-4, ACTU president Sharan Burrow stated: “For the past decade, here in Australia and around the world, big business, corporate greed and Wall Street funny money dominated all the seats at the table to the exclusion of working people. Because there was no alternative voice, free markets reigned. And the result is the worst economic crisis in a generation”. As long as the union bureaucrats have a “seat at the table”, they are happy to trade away hard won rights and conditions of working people, and the threat of unemployment gives them added leverage to get away with it.

Central to the Laborite union officials’ accommodation to the interests of the Australian capitalist ruling class is their support of the nationalist “buy Australian” industry plans. According to Burrow, “The ACTU has been at the forefront of the push to protect jobs since the earliest signs that Australia would not be immune from the global financial crisis. We have argued for stimulus measures including a green New Deal, proposed innovative ways of preserving jobs while retraining and re-skilling the workforce, and called for a set of national interest expenditure guidelines to give Australian industry a fair go in bidding for the billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to be spent on stimulus projects.” Taking this one step further, the Queensland branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has launched a “buy Queensland” campaign!

Burrow also endorsed the bosses’ moves to cut working hours and take-home pay, declaring that the “most productive measure is to keep workers in place with an eight or nine day fortnight and use the ‘down days’ for re-tooling and re-skilling. This sets the company up for a competitive advantage when the recovery comes and growth kicks back in and provides the workers with income security and up-skilling opportunities in the meantime.” Sacrificing workers’ incomes to give Australian companies “a competitive advantage” in the world capitalist market fits in perfectly with the Laborite union bureaucracy’s nationalist view that what’s good for Australian bosses is good for Australian workers.

Making Australian businesses ‘viable’

This class-collaborationist outlook is not only pushed by ALP union officials. Geelong Trades Hall Council secretary Tim Gooden, a member of the Socialist Alliance and the Democratic Socialist Perspective, has also been giving public advice to manufacturing bosses on how they can make their businesses “viable”. Gooden told the March 11 Geelong Times that “all manufacturing employers should be attending the Geelong Manufacturing Council to contribute to work[ing] solutions. There are already good programs and funding to support business transition to more efficient operations and moves to develop sustainable production and the creation of ‘green jobs’. Training and planning for future challenges is critical for long term viability.” Yes, if not “all manufacturing employers” in Geelong are attending the GMC meetings, how will the Geelong Trades Hall Council be able to partner with them and the Labor government to create a “green” capitalism?

Gooden clearly believes that the GMC could “work out solutions” that would be in the interests of workers. In the same interview, he argued that the Rudd government should “Nationalise the banks and run them in the community interest, beginning with the re-nationalisation of the Commonwealth Bank.” Of course, the pre-privatised Commonwealth Bank was run in the “community interest”, the interest of what the capitalist media today love to refer to as the “business community”. And this seems to be what Gooden has in mind. He went on to tell the Geelong Times: “This might seem an ‘extreme’ policy to some, but the US and British governments have already conducted crisis nationalisations”. He surely couldn’t be contending that the nationalised and partially nationalised banks in the US and Britain are being run in the interests of working people. But they are certainly being run in the interests of the “business community”.

Gooden told the DSP’s Easter World at a Crossroads conference that he was sick of “ideological hair-splitting” in the labour movement. But this is not hair-splitting. This is about the heart-and-soul of our movement. The working class cannot organise for its liberation with the ideology of the enemy class. The working class needs its own ideology — working-class internationalism. The economic struggle on its own will not give rise to this ideology, it must be consciously introduced and fought for. It is the near absolute dominance of the capitalist ideology of nationalism in the union movement that has underpinned the retreat of the working class over the last three decades.

Working-class retreat

This retreat can be most clearly seen in the statistics on the number of days lost to strike action, which has been in overall decline since the early 1980s. Throughout the 1980s this was achieved by the imposition of the Prices and Incomes Accord — a deal between the ALP and the ACTU that was sold to workers by the class collaborationist union bureaucracy as a “win-win”.

There certainly were winners from this deal — profits went up from 25% to 36.6% of the total national income in the first seven years of the Accord, while wages declined from 74% to 63.3% of national income. Unions that struck outside the framework of the Accord, were severely dealt with — including the Builders Labourers Federation, which was deregistered in 1986, and the airline pilots’ strike of 1989, which was broken with the use of air force pilots.

During the Accord years, union membership dropped dramatically from 51% of the work force in 1981 to 39.6% in 1992. This decline continued under the Howard government — in the 10 years from 1997 to 2007 it dropped from 33% to 20%. There was no genuine political fightback against the Howard government’s attacks on the unions. The campaign against Work Choices, while relating to a real willingness to fight among many workers, was organised by the ACTU as a “re-elect” Labor campaign — from the four stage-managed rallies over 2005-06 to the marginal seats campaign which the ACTU dedicated 20 full-time organisers to, and $25 million to an advertising campaign.

There was actually a decrease in the number of strike days in the years of the “Your Rights at Work” campaign — with the low point of 5.4 days per thousand workers in 2007. The number of industrial disputes in 2007, 135, was the lowest since records began in 1913. Of course, 2007 was an election year, so the Laborite union officials wanted to demonstrate to the capitalist rulers how useful a Labor government would be in maintaining class peace. This explains the unwillingness of the union bureaucrats to mobilise the union ranks against the employers. They are thoroughly tied to the interests of the ALP, to a political party that is thoroughly loyal to the “national interest”, which is only a euphemism for the interests of the capitalist class that rules the nation.

Work Choices “lite”

In fact, the opposition to Work Choices from the union bureaucrats was not based on the repressive nature of the laws, but by the fact that they were being locked out of the negotiating system. With the Rudd Labor government having given the union bureaucrats back their “seat at the table”, the ACTU has declared Labor’s Fair Work Australia legislation a “historic victory”. But the March 20 passing of the Fair Work Australia bill enshrines a defeat for the union movement. The new FWA laws, which take effect on July 1 this year, retain significant restrictions on workers taking industrial action. There will still be penalties for individual workers and trade unions that participate in “unlawful” industrial action. Such action can take place only during a legally set bargaining period, and must still be approved in a secret ballot conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, rather than at a mass meeting of the workers concerned.

Secondary boycotts will continue to be regulated by the Trade Practices Act (which was already the case before Work Choices). For unprotected industrial action, employees will face a mandatory minimum deduction of four hours’ pay. Unprotected action may be stopped by the Fair Work Australia agency, and workers may be sacked or sued for engaging in it. The legislation allows third parties harmed by industrial action to apply to the FWA, whose personnel will be selected by the Labor government in consultation with Coalition MPs, to have the action terminated.

The law will require the FWA to stop industrial action (whether or not it is “protected” by state laws) by workers outside the national industrial relations system, where the action causes or threatens to cause “substantial damage” to an employer. The federal workplace relations minister also retains the power to terminate industrial action.

Union delegates will still be unable to hold workplace meetings during work hours, and there is no requirement for employers to recognise delegates, nor to provide them with resources (such as access to delegate education or paid time to perform their duties as delegates).

The FWA legislation exempts employers from the obligation to give notice of dismissal during the qualifying period (six months for regular businesses and 12 months for small businesses). Not even Work Choices had such an exemption. Furthermore, restrictions on the content of agreements remain. Agreements can contain only “matters pertaining to the relationship between” employer and employees. The definition of “matters pertaining” will still be legally uncertain. Common law individual contracts will continue to cover matters that can’t be dealt with directly in a union collective agreement. This adds to the complexity of reaching an agreement. Any industrial action around “non-permitted content”, such as the contracting out of work, will be illegal. Employers will able to introduce technology, chemicals or practices that are potentially harmful without consultation. Centralised wage fixing and pattern bargaining are ruled out, collective agreements being determined at the “enterprise” level.

According to Sharan Burrow, “July 1, 2009, marks an historic day and the start of real rights for working Australians to freedom of association, representation and collective bargaining for which they will be better off”. That’s what the Laborite union bureaucracy would like us all to believe, but Rupert Murdoch’s Australian put it more honestly in its headline last September 18 when it reported on the unveiling by Labor workplace relations minister Julia Gillard of the Fair Work Australia bill: “Gillard’s fair go is Work Choices lite”.