Howard’s Industrial Relations laws CAN be beaten!

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August 19, 1996 Trade Unionists’ Cavalcade to Canberra: although officials mobilised members, the strategy was to lobby the Senate. Photo by Alison Thorne.

The Australian trade union movement currently faces two huge challenges. One is external. From 1 July 2005 the Howard Government assumes control of the Senate and plans to enact more than 60 pieces of anti-union legislation previously blocked by the opposition parties.

The other challenge is internal. In the aftermath of the Federal election result, the majority of those elected to lead the trade union movement are behaving like startled rabbits. This crew does not actually believe that Howard’s industrial agenda can be defeated, so are proposing only token resistance.

Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) workplace delegate, Alison Thorne, outlines the scope of the attack, describes how little the top trade union leadership has to offer and argues that a winning strategy is possible by returning to the union fundamentals of democracy, grassroots organising and mass solidarity.

Howard’s agenda. The Federal Government’s aim is to do all within its power to restrict the ability of unionists to organise and defend workers’ interests. The most widely discussed part of its plan is to roll back the already weak unfair dismissal laws so that two million Australian workers employed by small business can be dismissed unfairly with no legal redress. But there are many further nasties in store.

There are more than one million contractors within the Australian workforce. The Federal Government plans to exclude these workers from the Workplace Relations Act so they are not covered by Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs).

It wants to make it harder to take industrial action by imposing mandatory secret ballots and cooling off periods before workers can strike. It also wants to ban industrial action during the life of an EBA and outlaw strikes in industries it declares essential, including transport, health and education. It further proposes that a third party could have strike action suspended by claiming it would be adversely affected. Howard aims to introduce legislation to outlaw Pattern Bargaining, a strategy used successfully by the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU) under the leadership of former State Secretary and political prisoner, Craig Johnston, to maximise strength and solidarity.

In its fourth term the Government will continue efforts to break down collectivity by getting more workers onto Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). Howard has announced that he’ll increase staffing to the Office of the Employment Advocate (OEA) to drive this plan. Recent data suggests that AWAs have risen from 2% to 4% of the workforce. The goal of the OEA is to achieve a further 33% increase next year, especially in the small business sector. The filing and approval process for AWAs is to be simplified. The current requirement that a new employee be given five days to consider signing an AWA will be scrapped. Workers will be faced with a take-it-or-leave-it situation when being offered employment, in effect denying them the right to seek advice. 

If implemented, the new laws will result in increased casualisation and discrimination, a rise in workplace bullying and harassment, longer working hours, less control over shifts, a loss of hard-won working conditions, reduced safety on the job and lower wages.

The bosses want more! Commentators such as Age columnist Kenneth Davidson describe current proposals as reverting to the “master and servant” relationship of the 19th century. Maybe so. But what’s on the public record is not enough to satisfy the most class conscious employers, who are demanding that Howard get even tougher.

Last November, an unsavoury bunch of union busters, calling themselves the “group of 20,” wrote to John Howard proposing that individual contracts be the primary means of regulating employment conditions. They also want state-based industrial relations systems dismantled. This gang includes Chris Corrigan, chair of Patrick Corporation, Charles Copeman, former CEO of Peko Wallsend, and former Treasury Secretary, John Stone.

Steve Knott, CEO of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, another member of the “group of 20,” told the Australian Financial Review: “Let’s not make the same mistake that was made when the Liberals previously had control of both houses of parliament. I think there is a clear need for one system based on one set of minimum terms and conditions.”

The last time the Coalition in government controlled the Senate was under Malcolm Fraser. But despite the aspirations of the hopeful bosses, the Fraser Government was not able to smash the union movement. In this period unions went on the offensive, launching a “wages push” in 1979 and campaigning for a 35-hour week. There was vigorous resistance to Fraser’s “Razor Gang” cuts to public sector spending. The result? Small saving for the government at a huge political cost.

By organising vigorously during the Fraser years, unions limited the damage to working people. But the election of the Hawke Government in 1983 and the introduction of the Prices and Incomes Accord resulted in the disarming of the union movement. Sell-out union leaders promoted a philosophy of consensus between capital and labour, leading to a tragic withering of grassroots, on-job activism. The union movement is still paying for that mistake today. 

Employers unhappy with Fraser’s inability to deliver in terms of nobbling the union movement are demanding that the lessons be learned. They’re demanding that Howard deliver a knockout punch. But trade union leaders also need to look to the history books.

Lack of courage. Just days after Howard was re-elected, the ACTU held a special executive meeting to formulate a union movement response. Given the severity of the threat, many unionists were staggered by the tame response. The ACTU stated categorically that it was not planning to take any industrial action and instead pinned its hopes on conducting surveys and talking to the community. It also endorsed proposals from some affiliates to temporarily quarantine some of the more privileged sectors of the workforce from the government’s plans by speedily rolling over EBAs and then attempting to wait Howard out.

Reluctantly acknowledging the wreckage caused by their strategy during the Hawke/Keating years, the peak body of the union movement has adopted “Organising Works.” They’ve “rediscovered” the workplace as a desirable arena for union activity!

The same general message was the key theme at an early morning meeting for union delegates and activists, called by the Victorian Trades Hall on 23 November. A panel of union officials outlined their vision of the way forward for the union movement.  The ACTU was represented by Assistant Secretary Chris Walton. He argued that unions need to work on their image. John Howard, argued Walton, is a dangerous radical, and the unions are about fairness. A key task is to convince the community of this. Jeannie Rae, from the National Tertiary Education Union, reinforced the ACTU’s emphasis on image. She said part of this was showcasing the leadership role of women in unions.

Martin Kingham, the State Secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) predicted that the Howard Government would pick unions off one at a time. He argued that strong delegate structures are crucial and that union leaders must engage in intensive political education to prepare delegates for the fight ahead. Kingham described how the CFMEU has spent the last few years building a two million dollar fighting fund. He concluded that the union movement cannot pull in its horns during this kind of period or it won’t survive. The CFMEU is clearly a union high on John Howard’s hit list. However, Kingham did not propose a united trade union response to Howard’s industrial agenda.

While Kingham had nothing to propose about a union-wide fightback, Martin Pakula, the Victorian State Secretary of the National Union of Workers explicitly argued that the union movement should do nothing! Pakula thought it was a waste of time to try to oppose the laws,  “because no matter how hard the union movement campaigned, the Howard Government would pass the laws anyway.”

The message from Trades Hall Secretary Leigh Hubbard was that the union movement needs to consolidate strong spots and “help each other out.” But he warned unions not to rely on solidarity from others and said that, ultimately, each union had to be ready to defend itself.

What united all five speakers was their argument about the need to build strength within individual workplaces. Clearly this is crucial. But speakers from the floor argued it is wrong to counterpose strong workplace organising with a movement-wide campaign to defeat the government. Both are essential, and it is not possible to achieve one without the other. Speakers also challenged Pakula’s do-nothing approach, pointing out that the “group of 20” and other employers are demanding that Howard go further. If the union movement does not campaign vigorously, the chance of the Howard Government stopping at its current proposals is slim.

If you don’t fight, you lose! The key problem with the approach of top union officials is that many have no confidence in union members. But trade unionists have shown time and again — most recently during the 1998 MUA dispute and earlier in resistance to Jeff Kennett’s anti-union laws in Victoria — that when given a lead, workers will mobilise in huge numbers.

We need a broad political fightback against the anti-union onslaught. Trades and Labour Councils around the country must launch campaign committees open to union delegates and activists. Part of the task of these committees would be to mobilise for mass delegates meetings to launch a united union movement-wide campaign. And if peak bodies are unwilling to play this role, more militant unions should take it on. We need a fightback and we need it now!

What’s more, the union movement does not need a team of spin doctors to win community support. When Victorian unions mobilised against Kennett’s laws, small businesses in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy followed the union movement’s lead, shutting their doors to attend the mass anti-Kennett rallies. And among those on the mass pickets at Swanston Dock during the MUA dispute were retirees, disability pensioners, students and shopkeepers.

Now is not the time for trade unionists to bunker down in their individual workplaces. A loss for unionised workers in any sector impacts on all of us. We need a centrally coordinated campaign with the goal of stopping Howard, not merely manoeuvering around his attacks. This campaign needs regular democratic mass meetings to inspire and motivate, assess strategy and set directions. When the union movement mobilises in massive numbers to defend workers’ interests it’s had no problems with “image” among trade unionists or within the community at large.

John Howard’s industrial relations agenda can be severely blunted or even stopped completely, if the government finds that the political cost is too high. If timid leaders stifle a broad union movement fightback, the class conscious far right of the employer class will be emboldened in its quest to return to the days of the Masters and Servants laws. Every unionist has a responsibility to join the fight to ensure that this does not happen. John Howard must feel working people’s rage!

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