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Issue #1581      February 13, 2013

Editorial

The one way industrial relations street

The Australian Financial Review has conducted a survey of 12 Australian company chairmen to find out what they would like to see changed coming up to the federal election. The list is long and predictable. An end to federal/state wrangling, a shake up of how services are delivered to the public (more privatisation), less red tape and regulation in general were among the issues raised. Top of a lot of the lists was industrial relations “reform”. More “flexibility”, an end to what many big wigs imagine is unfettered access by unions to workplaces, limiting of the role unions have in establishing agreements for greenfields projects and so on and so forth. Individual contracts are favoured by some.

A number of the chairmen were talking tough. They want to put maximum pressure on Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to deliver more than has already been delivered in the area of industrial relations. Among the toughest talkers was National Australia Bank chairman Michael Chaney. “What is needed is a willingness to crash through at the risk of getting some noses out of joint,” he said. Of course, he’s talking about workers’ noses.

Increased productivity and industrial relations “reform” are seen as pretty much the same thing. The impression given is that Australian workers get about their tasks more slowly than workers in other countries or in other times. Mr Chaney was nostalgic for the good old days when workers erected the Empire State Building in just 15 months. “What an unfortunate comparison,” said ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver in response. “This highlights the inability of business leaders to come up with genuine solutions to productivity. As usual it’s the worker who cops the brunt. Five people died during the building of the Empire State Building so pinning this as a model for the construction industry today highlights their lazy management style.”

Australian building sites are still tough, hazardous places. The less union representation there is, the more dangerous and substandard they are. On average a worker dies at work every week in the industry. In spite of this and other unpleasant realities, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson and others maintain that industrial relations is a “one way street” running against business interests.

The particular comment was made following the Prime Minister’s announcement of proposed changes to the Fair Work Act that she claims will deliver more “family friendly” workplaces. The changes would require bosses to give more notice of drastic roster changes and written reasons in the event leave is refused to workers needing to care for pre-school children, disabled children under 18 years of age and elderly parents. The call will go out for part-time work to be made available to parents returning from parental leave. All of these requests can be refused on “reasonable business grounds” – reasonable in the eyes of the employer, that is.

These are hardly earth shattering changes and do little to change the flow of traffic on industrial relations street. The ACTU has called for some meaningful dispute handling mechanism but that won’t be achieved without concerted action by workers and communities. It has always been that way and will remain so as long as we have capitalism.

And while the debate rages around the rather inconsequential tweaks to the so-called Fair Work Act, employers are going in boots and all to maintain their advantage. As The Guardian goes to press, Lend Lease subsidiary Abigroup and the Queensland government are pursuing community activist Bob Carnegie through the courts for his support of workers in dispute at the Royal Children’s Hospital site in Brisbane. The dispute was resolved last year but clearly the company and the government want to dole out an ideological lesson. In Victoria, the AMWU may be fined for costs including that of helicopters that have flown guest type 457 visa workers into City West Water project at Werribee over the heads of a community picket. Protesters are outraged that unemployed local tradespeople weren’t taken on for the project. It’s all a long way from the image company CEOs like to project of the leisurely life enjoyed by Australian workers.

Next article – TSI health cuts attacked

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