What kind of campaign is needed to bury Work Choices?

By Nick Everett

On August 12, ACTU president Sharan Burrow called on the federal Labor government to introduce new industrial relations laws into parliament before the end of the year. “It’s time for all politicians to deliver on last year’s election mandate given to the government to demolish Work Choices”, Burrow told the media, adding: “Business must accept that most Australians have rejected the harsh, confrontational approach of Work Choices and stop pressuring the government to weaken its laws.”

Burrow appealed to employers to support “strong protections for workers’ entitlements” and “a good faith bargaining system that provides both certainty and injects shared growth into the economy”. She added: “Any businessperson worth their salt should recognise that the best way of achieving high productivity and profits is through a cooperative relationship with your workforce, not the nasty, hostile approach of Work Choices.”

But nine months on from the election of the Rudd government, the ACTU’s pleas for Labor to wind back the previous Howard Coalition government’s anti-union Work Choices laws appear to be falling on deaf ears. Despite a pledge to “tear up Work Choices”, the ALP declared five months out from last year’s election that its workplace relations laws would be “tough” on industrial action and business friendly.

On July 3, 2007, Labor’s then workplace relations spokesperson Julia Gillard told the media: “Our policy, Forward with Fairness, contains the toughest set of rules that Labor has ever had in relation to industrial action. We don’t want disputation … [W]e will be very tough on unlawful industrial action. People will only be able to take industrial action when bargaining for a new collective agreement and only then if a mandatory secret ballot says that industrial action should be taken.” Gillard also said that union officials’ right of entry to workplaces would require “permits and notifications, and no disruption at work”.

Labor’s workplace amendments

Labor’s Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Act, which came into force on March 26 this year, prohibits the signing of new Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), but allows existing AWAs to continue until either the employer or the worker terminates the agreement. In addition, the amendments introduced AWAs by another name — the Interim Transitional Employment Agreement (ITEA). These allow employers with just one worker on an existing AWA to sign up new workers on two-year individuals contracts.

The Workplace Relations Amendment bill also introduced an “award modernisation process” based on a set of national employment standards. A “flexibility” clause will become mandatory, allowing employers to negotiate working conditions with individual workers. While Labor claims this “flexibility” is aimed at working parents, this mechanism is intended to allow bosses to opt out of the award system just as AWAs were intended to do under the Howard government’s laws.

The Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) has already begun the task of “simplifying” more than 2400 awards — a process due to be completed by January 2010. But whereas the Howard government, when it introduced the Workplace Relations Act in 1996, attempted to strip awards back to 20 allowable matters, the Rudd government is seeking to strip awards back to only 10 “national employment standards”.

With industry-wide pattern bargaining remaining outlawed, workers will be forced to defend current award conditions at an enterprise level. And with Labor having ruled out reintroducing unfair dismissal laws before January 2010, the majority of workers will have no protection should their employer give them the sack for seeking to defend their conditions.

A July Galaxy poll of 1009 respondents found that 73% of voters thought there should be no delay in improving workers’ protection from unfair dismissal and 69% oppose a delay in legislating workers’ rights to bargain collectively. Respondents who voted Labor last November were even more overwhelmingly opposed to delays.

ACTU conceals Labor’s hypocrisy

In the July 23 Green Left Weekly, Margarita Windisch reported that Victorian Australian Manufacturing Workers Union secretary Steve Dargavel “thinks the ALP deliberately created the impression in people’s minds that they would restore workers’ rights.” Dargavel was quoted as saying: “Labor assumed that a lot of people would not pay attention to the detail of their policy and I think they were correct in that.”

But what GLW has omitted in its coverage is any consistent criticism of the ACTU’s role in concealing from workers Labor’s hypocrisy. Writing on the eve of the ACTU’s last national day of action against Work Choices, on November 26, 2006, GLW correspondent Graham Matthews told the paper’s readers: “The lessons from history are clear. While Labor’s promise to scrap at least some of the worst of Howard’s IR laws is a good first step, it will have to be held to this promise, pushed to go further. Working people cannot afford their unions to be drawn into a mono-focused and uncritical ‘vote Labor’ campaign.”

But working people were “drawn into a mono-focused and uncritical ‘vote Labor’ campaign”. When asked why the ACTU was unwilling to criticise Labor’s Forward with Fairness policy, ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence told a Unions WA Organising Conference in June that the union movement could not afford to damage the ALP’s electoral prospects. While the ALP may have wanted to give workers the impression that it would restore workers’ rights, it was the ACTU that worked tirelessly to reinforce this illusion.

According to Windisch: “Both Dargavel and [Victorian Electrical Trades Union secretary Dean] Mighell call for a vigorous campaign to get rid of the anti-union laws in the spirit of the Your Rights at Work campaign. Dargavel said that the YRaW campaign was effective because it mobilised the community and raised the profile of the issues — but it hasn’t been effective in overturning Work Choices.” How the YRAW campaign can be simultaneously effective and ineffective is never explained by union officials like Dargavel, or by GLW’s correspondents.

In reality, the YRAW campaign was effective at doing what the ACTU wanted it to do — improve Labor’s electoral prospects by “mobilising the community” to hear Labor politicians hoodwink voters. But two national mobilisations in two years — aimed at electing a Labor government committed to maintaining anti-worker laws — was not a campaign for workers’ rights, no matter how many people attended the rallies.

By early 2007, when it had become clear that the gulf had widened between most voters’ expectations of what Labor was promising and what Labor was actually prepared to deliver, the ACTU rapidly shifted gear into a marginal seats-focused PR campaign. And since Labor was elected, the ACTU has made no serious attempt to mobilise workers through mass street marches or industrial action to pressure the Rudd government to re-introduce unfair dismissal protections or to repeal the Howard government’s secret ballot provisions or its right of entry restrictions.

Building industry inquisition

The YRAW campaign also failed to secure any commitment from Labor to repeal the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, which empowers the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to coerce building industry workers to comply with its demands for information or face the threat of heavy fines or jail. While Labor has promised to abolish the ABCC in 2010, its coercive powers are to be transferred to a special building industry inspectorate within Labor’s new industrial “umpire”, Fair Work Australia.

On July 16, the ACTU executive endorsed a public campaign for the abolition of the ABCC’s powers, including drawing attention to the impending trial of Victorian construction union (CFMEU) official Noel Washington for refusing to provide information to the ABCC. Washington was called in by the ABCC for speaking to a meeting of CFMEU members in their own time at a location off the employer’s premises. For refusing to testify, Washington faces the prospect of a six-month jail term.

At a press briefing Burrow told journalists that ABCC chief John Lloyd has “not understood that the winds have changed” and urged him to involve the AIRC in seeking to settle disputes in the construction industry, rather than a “secret police force” to threaten people with fines or gaol for exercising their democratic rights. But if “the winds have changed” the Rudd government doesn’t seem to be getting the message either. To date neither prime minister Kevin Rudd, nor workplace relations minister Julia Gillard have expressed any concern that the ABCC has overstepped its brief.

Since the election of the Rudd government investigations by the ABCC have increased from 33 last November to 49 this June. Site visits have increased even more dramatically, from 15 to 109 in the same period. In 73% of all ABCC cases, unions were the subject of investigation.

On July 30, Victorian Trades Hall secretary Bryan Boyd told a union delegates meeting that “here in Victoria, we are at the pointy end of the struggle against the ABCC”. The meeting unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for the Rudd government to immediately abolish the ABCC, repeal the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, cancel the national code and implementation guidelines, and instruct the Director of Public Prosecutions to drop the charges against Washington. The meeting also endorsed a rally on the day of Washington’s court case later in the year.

Solidarity’s Chris Breen reported on July 31 on the Solidarity website that two amendments — for a 24-hour strike when the court case commences and a second 24-hour strike if Washington is jailed — “were well received”. However, the amendments “were debated, but effectively not put through bureaucratic manoeuvre”. Breen also reported that Geelong Trades Hall secretary and Socialist Alliance member Tim Gooden opposed the amendments, arguing that if a 24-hour strike were called “some building workers wouldn’t turn up to the rally and would just take whole day off”.

The resolutions that were adopted contained no planned action should Washington be jailed. Despite this, according to Breen: “Unions have decided to draw a line in the sand around the ABCC, which has been described by ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence as ‘the most anti-worker’ of all Howard’s industrial relations laws.”

The ACTU launched a “Rights on Site” campaign against the ABCC on August 25. CFMEU construction division national secretary Dave Noonan told the media: “The ABCC is the last vestiges of Howard’s unfair IR laws. No other workers, apart from workers in the construction industry, are faced with this sort of heavy-handed and undemocratic assault on their human rights. The ABCC was set up to benefit Howard’s mates in the construction industry. Now the big end of town is pushing to keep the ABCC, in a desperate attempt to keep their massive profits and intimidate workers from speaking up about safety and their rights on site.

“We find it amazing that the Rudd Labor Government, elected to restore Australian’s rights at work, should care so little about the rights of [construction workers] Charlie, Joe and Ivan [forced to attend interrogations under threat of six months jail] and the 900,000 other construction workers in this country.”

But “the big end of town” that is “pushing to keep the ABCC” are the same people, the owners and CEOs of the corporations, that Labor politicians serve. And with the backing of Labor governments in all states, Rudd is now looking to impose a national boss-friendly IR system on all workers, modelled on Howard’s Work Choices laws.

The abolition of the ABCC and the removal of laws that limit workers’ rights to organise and to strike will require a campaign of mass action, led by unions, including strategic industrial action such as bans and boycotts, that inflicts economic pain on the Rudd government’s masters, the employer class. But such a campaign can’t — and won’t — be waged by union leaderships that remain wedded to Labor’s politics. Such a campaign will require militant class-struggle union leaderships willing to break politically with the ALP.

[Nick Everett is a member of national executive of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and a workplace delegate for the Western Australian Civil Service Association.]