Fair Work Bill retains restrictions on organising

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On 25 November 2008, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard grandly told Parliament that

the government’s Fair Work Bill “takes the Australian value of the fair go and builds

around it a new workplace relations system ready to meet the needs of the nation in the

21st century.” ACTU President Sharan Burrow echoed Gillard’s enthusiasm, declaring,

“the Fair Work Bill turns the tide after a decade of attacks by the former Coalition

government and marks an historic turning point in restoring workers’ rights.”

But despite the hype, much of John Howard’s hated WorkChoices regime will remain

intact.


National Tertiary Education Union members at
Victoria University stopped work on 8 December.
Photo by NTEU Vic.

Breaking the silence. One group of workers sure to be disappointed is the Asian Women

at Work Action Group. The Sydney-based group, which has 150 predominantly Chinese

and Vietnamese members, campaigned vigorously with the goal of influencing the shape

of the legislation. Last April, they launched Cries from the Workplace which tells 20

women’s experiences of working in the food processing, textile and other manufacturing

industries. They say, “This is about more than just ‘getting rid of WorkChoices.’ The

government says they will build a new industrial relations system. We want to make sure

the new industrial relations system is truly able to protect migrant women workers like

us.”

The group used their own experiences to highlight what is needed. They sent delegations

to Canberra to tell their stories directly to Members of Parliament. Their eight

representatives describe a meeting with Julia Gillard’s adviser as the one “requiring

the hardest work!” They “sought to convince her of the need for more extensive legal

protections to address the poor wages and conditions of migrant women workers.” The

delegates were scathing of suggestions from the Minister’s office that “small business

employers were not very well organised or capable of writing so the government didn’t

want to burden them with having to write a warning letter, instead making a verbal

warning sufficient.”

The group also prepared submissions and appeared three times before the Industrial

Relations Commission’s Award Modernisation hearings. Angela Zhang and Hui Juan

Liu spoke out about bullying and harassment in many workplaces. They also described

how large numbers of workers were underpaid and denied minimum conditions. While

the women want a strong, proactive inspectorate to ensure that employers follow the law,

they argue that the best protection is to enhance the power of unions. Zhang stressed this

to the IRC: “Before the election last year our Action Group met with one of Joe Hockey’s

advisers to talk about WorkChoices and how it had caused so much hardship for migrant

women workers. The adviser proudly talked of having increased the number of industrial

relations inspectors to 300 to cover the whole of Australia. Our Action Group almost

laughed at him. How can 300 inspectors cover all the workplaces in Australia? How can

they possibly replace the enormous role that thousands of union organisers undertake,

checking up on workplaces across Australia on a regular basis? Our members see the

unions’ role in Australia as very important to protect them and support them.”

Workers didn’t vote for rollbacks! The Fair Work Bill imposes significant limitations

on the ability of unions to organise. Organisers must have permits stating that they are

“a fit and proper person” before they can enter a workplace and are required to give 24

hours’ notice. The boss will still be able to determine when and where the union official

may meet with members. In my previous call centre workplace, once the union organiser

had completed all the red tape to get in the door, the employer prevented meetings in the

busy tea room, reducing access and visibility by confining the union organiser to an out-
of-the-way office.

Strike action is legal in very limited circumstances: to secure a new agreement and

only after the previous one has expired. Unions must also conduct a secret ballot of

members before a strike is legal. Solidarity and political strikes are banned, as is any

strike action during the life of an agreement. The ability to impose hefty fines remains,

and the government can block even “protected” industrial action if it considers the action

to be causing “significant industrial harm to the employer” or “significant damage to the

Australian economy.”

Many of the women who told their stories in Cries from the Workplace describe the

vulnerability they feel, working in industries where jobs are disappearing. With the

introduction of WorkChoices, employers openly used the threat of the sack to demand

speed-ups, forced overtime and unsafe practices. The Fair Work Bill does not propose to

fully restore unfair dismissal rights. It will enable those employed by companies with a

workforce of less than 100 to claim unfair dismissal, but only after 12 months’ service.

For those working for large employers, this right is available after six months. However,

the new bill caps compensation, at six months wages, to a worker who proves unfair

dismissal.

Organise! Julia Gillard states that with the passage of the Fair Work Bill, the government

will have “delivered in full” on its promises to the electorate. But the blatant abuses the

women so movingly expose in Cries from the Workplace will not magically disappear.

Looking to the future, we’ll get the wages and working conditions that we have the

collective strength to fight for and win.

The organising done by the Asian Women at Work Action Group will contribute to the

collective strength of workers by empowering and educating its members and promoting

the benefits of union membership.

Building democratic and inclusive unions prepared to defy the limitations imposed by the

Fair Work Bill — whenever they have the collective strength to do so — is

essential

to

defend and extend workers’ pay, conditions and public services in the tough times ahead.

We need two, three, many Noel Washingtons!

On December 2, more than 7,000 unionists, predominantly building and manufacturing

workers, walked off the job to participate in a high-spirited rally outside the Melbourne

office of the hated Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

They were celebrating the dropping of charges against Noel Washington, Senior Vice-
President of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. Washington had been

due to appear in court that day for defying an order to appear before the ABCC; he faced

the prospect of a jail sentence. More than 100 building workers had previously been

dragged before the coercive body under the threat of fines and jail sentences.

Washington’s principled stance gave a huge boost to the campaign to abolish the ABCC.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council convened a mass delegates’ meeting, which gave full

support to Washington and vowed to mobilise massive support. The story about how

Noel Washington faced jail simply for refusing to disclose the content of discussions at

a union meeting and BBQ held during workers’ own time, clarified for unionists across

many industries the sinister nature of the ABCC and the urgent need to get rid of it.

The charges against Washington were dropped on a technicality, just days before he

was due to face court. The “convenient” discovery that errors had been made in the

paperwork provided a way out for a government clearly not keen for a showdown. But

the genie is out of the bottle. The ABCC must go, and unionists are organising to see it

scrapped.

The Melbourne rally heard inspirational speeches from Washington and a range of

union leaders representing building, manufacturing, maritime and education workers.

Washington wants to see the ABCC “smashed into a thousand pieces.” The message

from all was that the time to escalate the campaign is now! Brian Boyd, Secretary of the

Victorian Trades Hall Council, urged workers to fight the ABCC. He called for others to

follow Washington’s lead and refuse to cooperate.

The mood of the rally was lively, defiant and confident. Rallies also took place

in all other Australian capital cities, plus Wollongong and Newcastle as well as

internationally in Wellington, Toronto, Dublin, Manila, Seoul, London, Zagreb, Jakarta,

Oslo and Santiago. To find out more about how you can support this campaign, see

www.rightsonsite.org.au.

Education Revolution?

The Rudd government was elected at the end of 2007, promising an “education

revolution.” But rather than improvements, the sector is under attack, and workers and

the community are fighting back.

Technical and Further Education faces mass privatisation. Rudd is imposing a

competition agenda on this sector. Victoria and South Australia have already announced

the introduction of far-reaching changes to the funding and organisation of their TAFE

systems. Fees are set to rise, and students will finish their courses with huge HECS-style

debts. To support the TAFE4ALL campaign, go to www.aeu-vic.labor.net.au/campaigns/

tafe4all/index.

The NSW government claims that no final decision about the funding model for TAFE

has yet been made. But it’s gunning for the wages and conditions of teachers in the

sector. The government is demanding significant “productivity” gains, including a

massive increase in teaching loads, reduced sick leave provisions, a pay offer that fails to

keep pace with inflation and a demand that the teaching year be increased by four weeks

and holidays slashed.

In Victoria, TAFE teachers campaigned throughout 2008 for a new certified agreement.

They were the lowest paid in the country, receiving $13,000 a year less than colleagues

in schools. In 2008, Australian Education Union members in TAFE took industrial action

for the first time in more than a decade. As the FS Bulletin went to press, a pay deal was

negotiated that will go to a membership vote in 2009. It includes pay increases at all

classifications and improvements in conditions for casuals. However, pay parity with

school teachers was not achieved.

University workers are facing job cuts as administrators seek to further increase

casualisation in the sector. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has, to date,

prevented sackings at Melbourne University. RMIT is seeking volunteers for redundancy.

But opposition was galvanised by the announcement that 270 teaching positions would

go at Victoria University (VU). The NTEU held a successful protest rally, and workers

at VU took strike action on 8 December. In a welcome move, the NTEU leadership has

called on members across the sector to be ready to take “coordinated industrial action

commencing early in 2009.” For updates and to support the union and community

campaign go to www.universitybargaining.com.au/vu/.

Then there’s the Bradley Review, recommending, among other things, the introduction

of a voucher system into the Higher Education Sector so that the market can drive the

sector. 2009 is shaping up to be a year of struggle. It’s time to start organising now for a

real education revolution in the interests of workers and students!

Save Farzad Kamangar

Farzad Kamangar, a 33-year-old teacher and trade unionist from the Kurdistan Province

of Iran, risks execution following the ruling from an unfair trial.

Kamangar, who worked as a teacher in rural areas and is a human rights activist, is

accused of being a terrorist because of his alleged affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers

Party, PKK. Despite being on the Australian government’s list of terrorist organisations,

the PKK is a legitimate national liberation movement! Canberra should immediately

revoke this absurd terrorist label.

Farzad’s lawyer, Khalil Bahramian, was not permitted to defend him. He says Farzad’s

trial was not in accordance with article 168 of the Iranian constitution, which states,

“Political and press offences will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in courts

of justice.” In this case, just one judge spent five minutes reviewing the case, and the

defendant was not allowed to speak.

Get behind the international campaign to free Farzad. The death penalty in Iran is a tool

to intimidate and silence radicals, trade unionists, national minorities, feminists, gays and

lesbians and environmentalists. This barbaric practice has to go.

Education International and LabourStart are both conducting online campaigns to Save

Farzad. Add your support today.

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