Fighting for workers’ rights

Submitted by Matthew on 13 July, 2017 - 8:37 Author: Bob Carnegie and Martin Thomas

Below is an article from Workers’ Liberty Australia, jointly written by Bob and Martin Thomas, setting out ideas at the beginning of the battle against WorkChoices, in 2005.

In 2005, John Howard set out plans to bring in anti-union legislation more drastic than former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ever attempted in one instalment, and arguably more drastic than the sum total of the whole long series of laws introduced by Thatcher’s government through the 1980s.

The legislation — “WorkChoices” — was pushed through. A large union campaign against it limited its use and got it repealed by the Labor government elected in 2007. Then the unions dropped all the major demands for restored workers’ rights which they had worked out in the campaign against “WorkChoices” and quietly accepted replacement legislation from Labor which did abandon the drive to get most workers on individual contracts, but also made industrial action unlawful unless the union can win an official decision to have the action “protected” because it is about the terms of a new enterprise agreement, is in the period for negotiating that agreement, and comes after all attempts to negotiate have been exhausted.

Bob organised the Workers’ and Community Rights Campaign in Brisbane to push for workers’ rights.


This is an attempt to change the balance of class forces radically and suddenly — to set in train a process which will transfer most workers to individual non-union contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements, AWAs) in place of union-negotiated, publicly-registered “awards”. If successful, it will yank the Australian working class out of conditions still in the same league as the working classes of continental northern Europe, and hurl them towards conditions more like those of workers in the USA.

Howard is putting through special legislation for the building industry which is to be retrospective — to take effect from 9 March 2005, long before being passed by Parliament. This legislation bans “pattern bargaining”, requires a 21 day “cooling-off period” after two weeks’ legal strike action, imposes heavy fines for both union officials and individual workers for unlawful strike action, and creates a special body to “police” the industry, the ACCB, before which building workers will have no right to remain silent when questioned.

Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley has refused to commit the next federal Labor government to reversing the legislation. He has even dissociated from official Labor policy to scrap AWAs, claiming instead, and implausibly, that he will legislate sufficient protections for workers to make them irrelevant. But ACTU secretary Greg Combet has declared himself content with Labor’s general stance. The unions should insist that Labor commits itself to full repeal.

Labor former New South Wales attorney-general Jeff Shaw is planning a court challenge to the constitutionality of Howard’s general legislation with the backing of the state governments, which are all Labor. One Labor city council, Newcastle, decided on 23 August 2005 to ban contractors who use AWAs. At the same time the federal government is also making it a condition of funding to the states for schools that the schools buy flagpoles, fly the Australian flag, and grade students’ reports “competitively” (top of the class, bottom of the class, etc., rather than in terms of achievement).

Union activists should seize on the legal and political contradictions, and act to make Labor fight!
Despite the Australian Labor Party’s huge turn to the right over the last twenty years and more, Labor is still structurally dependent on the unions, and can still be pushed along by union pressure — if the unions choose to exert it. If the government cuts funding to the states in retaliation, they should respond by stopping the payment of PAYE contributions from state employees to the federal treasury. They should take the same stand as Newcastle City Council about refusing to deal with contractors who use AWAs.

Well-organised groups of workers in large companies should demand their employers refuse to use AWAs, and refuse to deal with contractors which use AWAs or which do not allow union organisers free access to their sites. Industry minister Ian Macfarlane said on 22 August: “We’ve got to make sure industrial relations reform continues so that we have the labour prices of New Zealand”.

In New Zealand, unions’ powers were crushed by legislation in 1991 and — even after the repeal of that legislation by a Labour government in 1999 — wages there are, on average, 32% lower than Australia’s. For over a hundred years, worker-boss negotiations in Australia have been much more publicly-regulated than in most other countries. Industrial deals have been “awards”, publicly-registered legal agreements negotiated by unions with employers and covering whole industries or sectors. The federal and state Industrial Relations Commissions have large powers to arbitrate.

Despite all its problems, this system creates large possibilities for better-organised workers to push forward advances in wages and conditions which flow on to worse-organised or more weakly-placed workers. Howard plans to shift the axis of the whole system towards individual agreements between individual workers and employers — so-called Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) — and thus drastically reduce the ability of workers’ collective trade-union action to determine wages and conditions.

In sum: 1. Individual contracts which scrap most “award” conditions will be legal. The only legal limitation on them will be that they pay at least the minimum wage and include eight days’ sick leave per year, four weeks’ annual leave, unpaid parental leave, and “award” working hours. Employers will be entitled, and encouraged, to “buy out” all other conditions individual-by-individual. 2. Strikes will be illegal without the workers first being balloted by the Electoral Commission. 3. The right of union organisers to enter workplaces — one of the most important legal strong points that Australian unions still have — will be drastically curtailed. 4. “Pattern bargaining” — in which a union wins the effect of an industry or sector-wide agreement without the formality by winning deals with all the employers based on a common “pattern” — will be illegal. 5. Employees of the states will be pushed towards AWAs by the federal government making the transfer of tax revenue to the states conditional on that push. 6. The powers of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be drastically cut. Its power to determine the minimum wage will be transferred to a new commission more controlled by the government. The federal government cannot directly abolish or disempower the state Industrial Relations Commissions, but is explicit that longer-term it wishes to see them fade away. 7. All unfair dismissal protection will be removed for workers employed in companies with less than 100 employees. (That is, the majority; and it will not be too hard for bigger companies, if they wish it, to divide up their operations so that all their workers appear to be in a unit of less than 100 employees).

Workers can still take court action against “unlawful” dismissal, for example being sacked on racial grounds, if they can afford to hire a lawyer for it and wait maybe 12 to 18 months for the case to come to court. But most workers unfairly dismissed — and, certainly, those sacked for striking — will have no legal recourse. Even this legislation will not be able to shift the Australian working class in one blow to a system where each worker hopes for no more than the best deal he or she can haggle for in the market as an individual facing the collective power of a corporate employer. Even the Howard government expects no more than 10% of workers to be on AWAs by the end of 2007. And Howard could not even get to first base if it were not for a whole series of previous measures.

The 1983-96 Labor government instituted Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) as an “add-on” to awards, legislating so that EBAs have become the main way for organised workers to get pay rises, and awards are mostly only back-up. Thus it will not be too hard in many sectors for bosses to offer AWAs at slightly more than the award wage-rate, but drastically worse conditions, and pressurise or intimidate sufficient workers into accepting the AWAs. AWAs themselves were introduced by the Howard government in 1996, but so far have been limited by a requirement that they offer “no disadvantage” compared with award conditions, and have not been taken up widely.

The fibre of the union movement has been cumulatively weakened over the years. In 1956, 85% of Queensland’s workforce was unionised. In 1976, 56% of workers all across Australia were in unions. In 1986, unions still organised 46% of Australia’s workforce. The 1983-96 Labor government’s policies of privatisation and marketisation pushed union density down to 31% in 1996. It fell to 23% at its lowest, before recovering slightly in the last couple of years to 25% [and then falling again, to 17% in 2015].

Strike rates for 2001-2003 were 90% down on the average for 1973-83. But the last big labour dispute — the attempt by port employers to lock out the wharfies in 1998, and replace them by non-union workers — generated large-scale solidarity action on a level not seen in Europe recently except in the French strikes of 1995 and 2003. In the end the unionised labour force got its jobs back, but on worse conditions and with large job cuts. Our assessment that this was a defeat for the workers (though a much smaller defeat than would have been without the solidarity action) was a minority view on the Australian left at the time. The idea that “the MUA scored a major victory” was majority opinion on the left, and is still argued today.

The Australian labour movement has not suffered a crushing nationwide defeat of the type that the British unions suffered with the 1984-5 miners’ strike, or the US labour movement with the 1981 air traffic controllers’ dispute. The building industry has a level of worker assertiveness and combativity unknown in Europe. Groups like the Business Council of Australia have long urged drastic legal measures to shift the class balance of forces. And on 1 July 2005 they got their chance. For the first time since John Howard became prime minister in 1996, he gained control of the Senate, the upper house of the federal Parliament.

With unemployment currently low and wages rising at a fair rate, Howard must think that — despite Macfarlane’s unfortunately candid outburst — he can get through the anti-union laws while assuring a lot of workers than they will only bring more “flexibility” and “competitiveness”, not more exploitation.

The Australian ACTU has issued well-written publicity against the new laws. But its leaders don’t believe it is worth trying to stop the laws. As early as March 2005, “ACTU secretary Greg Combet... signalled he want[ed] to negotiate with the Howard government over industrial relations reform and want[ed] state Labor governments and unions to avoid focusing on the issue of states’ rights”.

On 22 August, Combet called for legislation to include (as a way of limiting the damage) a compulsion on employers to negotiate with a union if a majority of their employees vote for that. Combet is reckoned to be the leader of the Left in the Australian labour movement. It was left to a mainstay of the Right, New South Wales Labor Council leader John Robertson, to retort that Combet’s proposal would leave Australian workers in the same position as workers in the USA, where a similar legal duty to negotiate already exists and does not stop de-unionisation and “give-back” contracts! In short, the ACTU is already thinking (weak) damage-limitation even before Howard has published his legislation in full.

As another way of signalling that stance, the ACTU’s campaign puts huge emphasis on Howard’s proposed changes to unfair-dismissal law and the downgrading of the “independent umpire”, the Industrial Relations Commission, but hardly any on the restrictions on strike action. Left The radical left has called for industrial action to defeat the legislation — rightly, but in terms too abstract to have any grip. Neither the level of confidence of the rank of the file, nor the strength of the radical left in the unions, is sufficient for the radical left to make any definite calls for definite action by definite unions — beyond urging maximum support for the ACTU’s days of action. Some left activists say that we cannot stop Howard legislating, but the “real” struggle will come later.

“Howard might have the numbers in the new Senate to ram through this big-business wish list, but that’s far from the end of the story... It is one thing to pass a law, it another thing to implement it. A determined campaign of industrial action... can have them running for cover” (Socialist Alternative, August 2005). There is a half-truth here, but a dangerous half-truth — a sort of “mañana Marxism”. It will be a “determined campaign” on what demands, exactly? After the law is passed? Why only then? If the campaign can be done at will, then why not do it now? The union movement can fight these laws effectively only if it holds to the first principle of trade unionism: solidarity.

That means the stronger groups of workers mobilising to help the weaker sections. It means those stronger sections thinking strategically, seeing themselves as having a long-term responsibility to the whole working class, rather than thinking only (and sometimes over-confidently) about how they can hold their own corner even if the rest of the working class goes down.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.