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Issue #1611      September 18, 2013

Calls for return of repressive industrial relations laws

As the new government ruled by Tony Abbott takes over, a clear indication of the direction in which industrial relations is headed is given by a spate of pre-election demands by business leaders.

One of these was a call to return to the industrial “accord” of the Hawke era, which failed when it became painfully clear that the “reforms” it advocated favoured employers, who wanted unions to abandon long-held gains in working conditions, pay and industrial rights.

Written by Geoff Allen, founding chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, it declared that “Australia currently has little economic and productivity reform momentum. … due in part … to a lack of political commitment to seriously addressing a critical but challenging long-term reform agenda.”

Another declaration in a similar vein was a recent editorial in The Financial Review entitled: “Needed: A new culture of work”, which noted that “Labor’s vision of industrial relations is based on the assumption of conflict between capital and labour.”

The editorial began by claiming that the “reforms” it had in mind offer workers a really good deal. It stated that “ … less intrusive workplace regulation could encourage a high performance work culture that naturally generates good jobs with good pay and conditions – because that is good for productivity.”

Amazingly, at one point it claimed that “In a modern information age economy … the old working class has become independent contractors owning the means of production through their superannuation funds”.

Apart from the bleeding-obvious points that not all the workers have become independent contractors, and that involvement in a superannuation scheme does not result in a worker taking over the means of production from its corporate owners, the essential message of this editorial is that the government should hasten to reintroduce industrial relations “reforms”, and that workers should welcome the change.

Attempting to turn reality on its head, these media statements ignore the fact that the value of commodities which is realised in the market is actually created by the work of employees, and that in order to maximise its profits any capitalist business must minimise the portion of this value which it returns to the worker as wages, and maximise the portion it retains for itself. That’s the essence of the “conflict between capital and labour” which characterises all capitalist relations.

And of course the writers ignore the fact that capitalism needs the working class, but the working class does not need capitalism.

The real agenda

The editorial in the Financial Review was highly significant, because after its apparently mentally-disordered analysis of what it saw as Australia’s new economic formation, it suddenly launched a crystal-clear attack on award rates of pay and conditions, and endorsed the overturning of the “antiquated grid of prescriptive industrial awards”, which it said should have been “allowed to wither on the vine”.

It declared: “Because the system insists on preserving workers’ ‘hard-won gains’ it builds in punishingly high penalty pay rates that reflect the nine-to-five Australian society of decades ago. Because it allows militant unions to monopolise the supply of labour, it imposes high costs that threaten the expansion of our massive liquefied natural gas projects …”

It described, with approval, the proposed changes to industrial relations in the wake of the Abbott government’s election, noting: “The Australian Building and Construction Commission … will be revived. Ms Gillard’s broken promise not to give militant union officials the right to enter private businesses will be corrected. Union blackmail over greenfield sites will be resisted. And unions will have less scope to restrict individual flexibility clauses within enterprise agreements.”

But apparently that’s not enough. The editorial then complains: “But there will be no return to individual contracts. And the Coalition even talks about giving the Fair Work Commission more powers.”

They needn’t worry. The Coalition team led by Abbott is certain to attempt to revive all the repressive industrial arrangements introduced by the Howard government, if necessary with different titles and superficially different methods of operation.

The Financial Review’s editorial is a clear indication of what Australian workers are likely to face under the Abbott regime i.e. productivity bargaining, a ban on strikes before bargaining commences, individual employment contracts, the abolition of award rates of pay and conditions, and a ban on union officials’ visits to worksites and union involvement in contract negotiations.

They also face a revival of the Howard government’s infamous industrial institutions, including its former attack dog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), which had been established in breach of Australia’s treaty obligations, according to the International Labour Organisation.

The coalition has vowed to reinstate the Commission within 100 days of taking power. According to Liberal workplace policy, the ABCC’s role would extend to offshore construction sites, and (despite its title) its ambit would cover the activities of the Maritime Union of Australia, which was involved in the long and bitter Patrick Stevedoring dispute under the Howard regime.

The government would also establish a Registered Organisations Commission, which would police the activities of unions (and, supposedly, employer organisations) with the power to impose penalties similar to those applicable to corporate directors who break the law.

The Fair Work Commission would be retained for the moment, but would be prevented from hearing claims of bullying unless they had been investigated by other bodies, and the Fair Work ombudsman would be allowed to advise small businesses as well as employees.

There would be a review of workplace laws by the Productivity Commission, and the government would seek to introduce further changes to industrial law after the next election.

It seems that it’s time for Australian workers to don their industrial battle amour once again.

Next article – How the war on piracy became big business

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