ACTU and the federal elections - who is afraid of what?

Spending well over $2 million on election advertising, the ACTU and many affiliates again raised the spectre of an Abbott-run industrial relations agenda in the event of a Coalition victory. And despite all the denials, there is every reason to believe that a Liberal federal government would seek harsher penalties for unions and their members.

ACTU strategists believed raising memories of the massive outpouring of anger over the WorkChoices laws before the 2007 election would again help Labor over the line on August 21. But the strategy failed, not least because working people have experienced little change in industrial laws under the Rudd/Gillard Labor government.

Silence on FairWork

The ACTU advertising campaigns, along with many other union-driven commercials, were conspicuously silent about union aims and demands for laws to protect the right of labour to bargain collectively and effectively. To do that would have placed the union in stark opposition to the intended beneficiary of the election campaign: the Labor Party and the Gillard government. There is little fundamental difference between Howard’s WorkChoices laws and Gillard’s FairWork legislation.

The FairWork Act provides some of the strictest anti-strike laws in the West. Strikes are “permitted” only if enterprise agreement negotiations break down every three years — and then only if allowed by the industrial courts. Pattern bargaining, or campaigning industrially for similar conditions and rates throughout industry, is specifically ruled out.

Workers in small business can still be unfairly dismissed. Delegates and militants on the job campaigning even on issues of safety can still be victimised by their employer.

The federal workplace minister, Simon Crean, ex-secretary of the ACTU, reportedly cautioned the ACTU executive before the election that there would be no “second tranche” of industrial reforms with a returned Labor government. He also signalled that Labor would “replace” the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) with a similar body and retain its coercive powers.

But cracks did appear within the union movement. The Victorian branches of the Electrical Trades Union and the United Firefighters publicly backed the Greens, particularly Adam Bandt for the seat of Melbourne. And although calling for a Labor vote in the lower house, the national CFMEU urged its members to vote Green in the Senate, seeking to punish Labor for its continued support for the ABCC.

The ABCC is still seeking to prosecute South Australian rigger Ark Tribe for failing to testify in secret over safety issues on the job. The ABCC hope Tribe will face hefty fines and a possible jail term for not dobbing in his workmates.

But the ACTU media blitz did expose a fear, not of a return to the “bad old days” of Howard and Abbott, but of confronting anti-labour laws. It’s not that the ranks of the union movement express such a concern. After all, there were over a hundred thousand who mobilised at the peak of the YourRights@Work campaign before the 2007 election, who were willing to fight the Howard government and its anti-union legislation.

The timidity of the ACTU and union officials who can’t see beyond a return of the Gillard government can only encourage further draconian laws and keep the union ranks passive and cynical. A real streetwise campaign against FairWork laws, the ABCC, sections of the Trade Practices Act and other anti-union legislation backed by Labor is the only guarantee that Abbott and his conservative cohorts will never sit on the government benches.