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Issue #1608      August 28, 2013

Abbott’s more toxic WorkChoices

“You can take me on trust,” Coalition leader Tony Abbott keeps telling us. The election is about “trust” and who is “more fair dinkum”. Abbott says he wants “Australian workers to be amongst the best paid in the world.” And how will he do this? Just trust him! It is clear that the Coalition have plans to cut the minimum wage, cap wage rises, give employers more flexibility in the workplace, reduce or abolish penalty rates, sack 12,000 public servants and clobber trade unions and workers with a more toxic version of WorkChoices.

May Day in Adelaide earlier this year.

In fact neither Liberal nor Labor have pushed industrial relations as an issue for “debate” in the lead-up to the September 7 federal elections. They both say a lot about boosting productivity, making Australia internationally competitive, creating prosperity and helping families.

Most of the Coalition’s industrial relations policy is being kept under wraps, for fear of almost certain electoral defeat if details were released prior to voting. This is what Campbell Newman did to win the Queensland state elections and how John Howard won the 1996 federal elections.

There is no doubt that the push is on from employers to slash wages and working conditions. They are making the most of deteriorating economic conditions to pressure workers into making sacrifices to keep profits flowing in.

Holden assembly workers in Adelaide are the latest to be confronted with the threat of losing their jobs if they did not accept cuts. Last week, they voted to accept a three-year wage freeze and other changes to avoid their plant being closed in 2016. These sacrifices include a reduction in break time from 40 to 25 minutes and greater flexibility for management in relation to overtime and working hours.

Holden’s US parent company General Motors, had issued a similar threat in Hochum, Germany, and decided to go ahead with its threat to close the plant in 2014, following rejection by workers of the changes being demanded. So the threat was taken seriously by the 1,500 Adelaide workers.

It was a difficult decision for the union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, and the workers involved. There are still no guarantees that the plant will remain open until 2022. It also depends on government assistance, which Labor promised, but Abbott so far has not.

Ford will cease production in Australia in 2016. Toyota will be the only other remaining car manufacturer in Australia. Instead of the government taking over the plants and converting them to the manufacture of other vehicles such as buses and train carriages for public transport, Australia’s skill base is being lost.

It is not just in the car industry that downward pressure is being exerted on wages and working conditions. Employer bodies are lobbying on all fronts, determined to use the developing economic crisis and a Coalition government to destroy the union movement and take back more than a century of gains won in hard struggle.

The mass media, in particular, the Australian Financial Review and The Australian, run with employer wish lists almost on a daily basis. The Business Council of Australia, Rio Tinto, McDonalds, the hospitality industry, Chevron, INPEX, construction companies, Gina Rinehart, are just some of those on the war path against trade unions and Australian labour standards. They have a class ally in Abbott.

Workers feel the brunt

Workers face job losses in other sectors of manufacturing. For example, Brad Teys, CEO of Teys Australia, one of Australia’s largest meat processing plants joined the fray last week, complaining about “archaic labour attitudes”, and blaming trade unions for the demise of manufacturing in Australia.

Teys compares the cost of processing beef in Australia at $300 a head with Brazil at $100. Those comparisons give some idea of his expectations! The company threatened to close its Beenleigh plant in Queensland, if its 800 workers did not accept cuts. The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union is still fighting the company over an EBA.

Blaming workers for the decline in the manufacturing sector in Australia is an all too familiar refrain in the corporate media and from bosses seeking concessions from workers. It is a refrain that is music to Abbott’s ears.

There are many factors behind the decline in manufacturing, including competition policy, privatisation, tariff reductions, lack of commitment to Australia and poor investment decisions by the private sector, lack of government planning, which have been added to by competition from industrialisation in lower wage countries. Car companies and other manufacturers have drained every dollar they could out of governments while failing to invest in future, green products.

Government policy and capitalist greed are to blame, not “greedy” workers and their trade unions. Blaming workers for not being internationally competitive diverts blame from where it should be directed and serves as an excuse to slash wages, increase working hours and cut conditions.

Employer wish list

A group of around 100 CEOs from some of the largest companies operating in Australia including Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and McDonald’s have called for a review of the Fair Work Act. Abbott has agreed; it will be conducted by the neo-liberal, pro-big business Productivity Commission.

Their wish list includes reducing the already limited statutory rights of trade unions, in particular, denying union officials access to workers in the workplace, outlawing “protected” industrial action, getting rid of the requirement to bargain in good faith, and the abolition of penalty rates.

Abbott has already indicated that the Australian Building and Construction Commission (renamed under Labor) will be restored and have its powers strengthened and coverage extended to cover the Maritime Union of Australia, as well as building and construction unions.

The Coalition policy includes subjecting EBAs to examination by the Fair Work Commission, which will be required to reject agreements where wage rises above CPI are not fully paid for by productivity gains – i.e. by workers’ sacrificing manning levels, cutting paid breaks, losing penalty rates, speeding up work, etc.

In other words, under a Coalition government real wage rises will be outlawed unless workers make trade-offs and sacrifice other conditions or jobs to fund them.

The Coalition will make it more difficult for trade unions to negotiate greenfield agreements for new sites, prior to work commencing.

The Productivity Commission inquiry will lay the basis for “trust me” Abbott to reveal the Coalition’s real agenda, after they are elected. The CEO wish list is a good indication of what lies ahead.

Senate balance of power

If the Coalition is elected, then it is vital that it does not control both Houses of Parliament as the former Howard government did.

The CPA recommends putting Coalition candidates last on their ballot papers along with other reactionary candidates including those from the Rise Up Australia Party, Family First, Katter’s Australian Party, Democratic Labor Party, One Nation, Christian Democrats, Palmer United Party and so on. We recommend a vote for Labor ahead of these reactionary groupings.

The Australian Greens are the only progressive, pro-worker, pro-environment political force in a position to hold the balance of power. It is vital that the Greens build their numbers in the Senate, so the CPA recommends voting for the Greens in the Upper House to prevent the Coalition obtaining an absolute majority.

Regardless of which of the two major parties comes out on top on September 7, the struggle to protect and improve workers’ rights will continue. The work of building a strong left and progressive alternative will still be on the agenda.

Next article – Editorial – Parental leave – who pays?

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