Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott spent last year trying to convince employers to be “more militant” — and take on unions. He takes every opportunity he can to convince bosses that many of them have made “insufficient use” of “all sorts of freedoms and flexibilities” within the existing industrial relations laws.
In August Abbott presented his “vision” when he addressed Commerce Queensland: “we have not given up on reform…we will be trying…to make our workplaces better reflect freedom and democracy that we believe is the birthright of every Australian citizen.” This is from a minister ideologically committed to destroying unions. Abbott complains about “unreconstructed pockets of militant Marxism” and “small groups of unionists who often seek to be a kind of combination of Al Capone and Che Guevara.” He wants bosses to sideline unions by negotiating non-union collective agreements under Section 170lk of the Workplace Relations Act. Thanks to vigorous organising by unions, his union-busting policy has so far failed.
LK, no way! Perhaps most embarrassing for Tony Abbott was the rejection of this form of agreement by workers in his own department: despite massive intimidation, public servants gave the anti-union agreement a decisive thumbs down.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) had a big win in Victoria on 18 December — 75% of workers employed by Grocon rejected an “lk” agreement. As Martin Kingham, Victorian State Secretary of the CFMEU explained, “the Grocon plan would have workers forced to start at 5 am each day, work throughout the day for as long as the boss says so, have no weekends or rostered days off for months at a time, and no annual holidays if it doesn’t suit Grocon.”
Compared to other building contractors, Grocon was a “benevolent” employer with a decades-long history of company loyalty. Kingham explains: “the CFMEU took many years to unionise the Grocon workforce but the company has effectively consolidated support for the union in two weeks.”
It’s been a similar story for the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) at Centrelink, with membership skyrocketing. The day after the Grocon vote, an “lk” non-union agreement was put before Centrelink staff around the country in a secret ballot supervised by the Australia Electoral Commission (AEC.) The union ran a vigorous “Vote No” campaign.
In the months prior, the CPSU consulted extensively with members. It developed bargaining principles — supported by 98.4% of members — focussing on winning an agreement which would deliver a real pay rise, be clear about rights and entitlements and make managers accountable. Yet meetings conducted in each workplace revealed widespread opposition to the best position achieved by union negotiators A leaflet circulated by the rank and file group Members First, encapsulated this dissatisfaction: “Hands up those who want to work harder, faster, for longer hours, and all without a decent pay rise. Hands up those who enjoy filling in staff surveys that mean nothing when it comes to changing senior management’s bottom line. Hands up if you want a keyring instead of a better job!”
Members First also described the changing industrial climate: “for the past 6 months we’ve seen Centrelink management change from courting the union during closed door negotiations, to a war footing where they now want to lock the CPSU out altogether with an ‘lk’ agreement. It’s not just about a ‘nasty CEO’ — they only take their marching orders from the ministers in the Howard Government. People like Tony Abbott have an agenda to see unions smashed and corporate Australia get yet another profitable slice of the public sector.”
The union officials read the mood of the members and called for industrial action resulting in two well-supported half-day strikes.
Centrelink workers could not be bribed — despite not receiving a pay rise since July 2001 — decisively rejecting the non-union agreement with a 72% no vote. The CPSU is now demanding that Centrelink management immediately reopen negotiations.
Now organise! The no votes are fantastic. But neither struggle has yet been won. Grocon divided the ballot result into five separate entities — which suggests it might be paving the way for a Patrick’s- style arrangement, where workers are transferred to a new company without their knowledge or agreement. For Centrelink workers, the rejection of the non-union agreement sends a strong message to management. However considerable activity by CPSU members is required to win an agreement which extends, rather than erodes, wages and conditions.
Tony Abbott told Commerce Queensland that his aim is to get rid of “class war.” Instead, by attacking the unions head on, his agenda is leading to a grassroots revitalisation of the union movement. Victory for unions in both the Grocon and the Centrelink ballots was only achieved by recruiting and organising in the workplace and winning the hearts and minds of members. Way to go! Watch out Tony Abbott — this is a dangerous business!