Is it the industrial relations system that Howard is out to smash, or is it the industrial power of unions?
"It seems incredible that we would see a hundred years of a fair system that has underpinned one of the richest economies in the world [changed] because business says it doesn’t have enough power. I don’t think any Australian is going to accept that" said ACTU President Sharan Burrow in response to the Howard Governments next plans for industrial relations.
Howard's new proposals build on Peter Reith's Workplace Relations Act (WRA), which already undermines and penalises basic unionism. The WRA brought in Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), limits allowable matters covered by federal awards, and limits the legal basis for strikes and access of organisers to workplaces.
Howard's IR 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 Feb 2003).
The context for this drive is relevant. Since the end of the post-WWII boom, business pulled out of its long "social contract" with unions. A new strategy was 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.
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.
Other reasons for this decline include changes to locations of industry and the organisation of work.
Prime Minister John Howard and Kevin Andrews (Workplace Relations Minister) planned federal takeover of state industrial relations powers is causing the greatest controversy. NSW ALP Minister John Della Bosca argued "Australians want a neutral umpire, they want something that protects the relatively lowly paid, they want something that protects family lifestyles."
Who wouldn’t rather have a benevolent third party available to appeal to, rather than the stress of slugging it out? Part of the job of Industrial Relations Courts is to estimate the results of a case if it were slugged out, and to arbitrate accordingly to cut short conflict and get back to normal work. To minimise conflict. Many union leaders argue that industrial campaigns make no difference to industrial court decisions, when they oppose or derail membership proposals for industrial campaigns.
Industrial Courts may make the life of a union official easier, but are of mixed benefit and can work at least as easily against workers as in their favour. Right now the honourable commissioners and judges will be keen to save their own careers under threat, by avoiding any appearance of union bias, and making business-friendly decisions as much as possible. If union leaders pin their hopes on saving the Industrial Relations system as it is, then they will feel the need to impose unacceptable settlements on union members who could win a better deal by taking action.
The real power of a union is in its ability to organise members around collective interests, and a willingness to act in solidarity. Industrial courts have played a role in dampening down or ending such action. Union strength ultimately rests on workers willingness to take action, and their determination to win demands - whether for wages, hours, conditions, safety or to change government policies.
Unionism cannot be saved from Howard's next law reforms by focussing on saving state Industrial relations systems.
Howard's attacks will make it harder, and even illegal, for unions to do what unions need to do to be effective. They increase penalties for union actions, and target both organisations and individuals. The biggest danger in the next wave of ‘reforms’ is the undermining of the award system by the extension of Australian Workplace Agreements, making pattern bargaining illegal, and introducing compulsory pre-strike ballots.
Unionism: use it or lose it
Howard's reforms can be better resisted with a focus on union rights, the right to organise and bargain collectively, the right of workers to solidarity against employers, both private and government. The ACTU should be organising an education campaign on the importance of these rights in underpinning all the gains of unionism, and preparing an active campaign to demand these rights. The most effective way to demand these rights is to exercise them, especially 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.
This is not an easy option. There is in fact no easy option. Labor lost the last election with modest proposals to restore some union rights. Unions are not being accused of reckless abuse of their power. Business smells union weakness. Until unions go back to rebuilding the roots of union strength, the power to act in solidarity against employers, union power will continue to decline, and anti-union laws will make it all the harder to reverse that decline.
By Janet Burstall