By Janet Burstall
John Howard has been the Liberal Prime Minister of Australia since 1996. Last November he won not only his third term as Prime Minister, but also, for the first time, a majority in both houses of the Parliament. From that position of strength his government is preparing to introduce a string of anti-union legislation.
The Government’s plans include:
- Removal of employment conditions from collectively bargained conditions (awards). Conditions that would be removed include additional leave and workload matters e.g. agreements on hours and intensity of work.
- Changes to the way minimum wages are set making them lower. They will set up a “Fair Pay Commission”. The misnamed commission is based on Blair’s model with the more honest moniker “Low Pay Commission”.
- Using individual contracts to undercut existing employment rights, and to exclude unions from representing workers.
- Keeping unions out of workplaces, by reducing union officials’ access to work sites.
- Reducing workers’ negotiating and bargaining rights; making it harder to take industrial action by introducing secret ballots and limiting the legal basis for action.
- Abolishing redundancy pay and protection from unfair dismissal for people who work in small and medium sized businesses.
Howard is moving rapidly to make sure that these laws are imposed as widely and quickly as possible.
The Federal Government is seeking the power to override State industrial legislation which gives greater recognition to unions. It plans to break the relatively more powerful construction union, the CFMEU, with legislation targeted specifically at that industry. That law will include very sever fines and jail terms for unions, union officials and union members.
The Government is also making Federal funding in many areas conditional on the enforcement of the new industrial regime — Universities, TAFE Colleges (equivalent of Further Education) and state-operated capital works projects, including drought relief projects, are all affected.
Howard’s anti-union agenda has “at its heart... the ‘economic imperative’ to drive labour costs down so big business can further increase their share of national prosperity at the expense of working families” (Workers Online, 25 February).
Since the end of the post-World War Two boom, business has pulled out of its long “social contract” with unions. A new strategy has been adopted for the harder times — that of breaking down union power. It has been pursued with different tactics at different times in different countries, but it is a trend world over. Australia has been no exception.
In Australia and other OECD countries levels of union membership have declined dramatically since the 1980s, as have levels of union struggle, strikes, bans etc. Now defence of union rights has to take place under union leaders who are either are responsible for or endorse the union policies and practices which have contributed to the weakening of unions.
The MUA (dockers’ union) dispute of 1998 was the Howard Government’s big bang attack on unionism, the first under his first round of industrial relations law. Although the MUA was not destroyed, it was severely weakened, despite a huge show of solidarity. The ACTU (Australian TUC) took a very legalistic approach to defending the MUA, and the result which they claimed as a victory could prove to be a preliminary to defeat if a more combative approach is not taken this time.
There are prospects for a fightback. The peak union bodies are initiating campaigns which appear to be getting a strong response from members. It is quite possible that the vigorous response of the rank and file will not be limited to what some officials see as a priority — “winning in the court of public opinion”. Stop-work action is already planned for the end of June in Victoria and Western Australia, where there is a stronger left in the unions. Unions New South Wales is holding mass meetings and rallies around the State on 1 July, and many unions will be stopping work to participate.
The other plank in the official campaign is to build the unions. Membership recruitment in itself is not enough. To build unions and defend union rights it is necessary to exercise the rights the unions are fighting to retain, and to educate members to exercise those rights.
This is especially possible in industries or union areas where there is still industrial strength. This could do more to educate and organise workers in the newer industries where union levels are low, than any amount of recruitment campaigns. It could also make Howard’s laws against unionism meaningless.
A National Unions Fightback Conference will be held in Melbourne on 11 June, organised by the Socialist Alliance. The two main elements of the Socialist Alliance “intervention” in the campaign are to press for specific strike action, and to commit unions to taking immediate solidarity action if any unionists are penalised under the new laws.
What is really lacking from both the union peak bodies and the Socialist Alliance so far, is a strategy that sets out specific elements of Howard’s plans that can be targeted to be defeated by action. Also, the DSP (Democratic Socialist Party, Castroite) has a record of influencing the Socialist Alliance to take a sectarian approach to the ALP and ALP union officials. This may mean that the SA might not be able to overcome marginalisation or to work constructively with some unionists who despite their continuing attachment to the ALP have good instincts on this campaign,
The main elements of the campaign that is needed are:
- Demand repeal of the whole Worker Relations Act, and the associated acts.
- Commitment to industrial solidarity in the case of penalties being applied.
- Demand that employers, including state governments and university administrations commit to refusing to implement the WRA, etc.
- A rallying cry to workers to join the union, and refuse an individual contract.
- A collective bargaining push with well-supported claims for conditions that will make a difference to workers lives.