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Issue #1679      April 1, 2015

Demand Your Rights at Work

Tony Abbott came to government with a blueprint for Australia drawn up by big business for big business. The Abbott government’s first budget was just the beginning. The “age of entitlement” is over, Hockey warned, as he presented a budget centred on slashing health, education, social security, community and Indigenous programs. The centrepiece of the blueprint is the employer’s dream of smashing the trade movement and taking workers’ wages and working conditions back to the dark ages.

Photo: Craig Greer

Employers have been on the offensive ever since the election of the Coalition – attacking workers’ wages and conditions and pushing the government to get along with its workplace “reform” agenda. The government, while turning a blind eye to breaches of industrial relations such as the super exploitation of 457 visa workers, is working to a plan.

The first step is to try to discredit the trade union movement and demonstrate there is a need for the undemocratic and anti-worker policies they are intent on imposing.

The government’s main weapons in this process have been the so-called Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (renamed Fair Work Building and Construction Inspectorate by Labor), the courts and the Murdoch media.

The Royal Commission sets the scene for vilifying and criminalising legitimate trade union action. The already notorious ABCC, with its draconian and coercive powers, is responsible for unions in the industry forking out millions of dollars in fines and individual workers and officials penalties in the thousands.

The most recent arrival on the trade union scene is the “independent” Productivity Commission which usually provides neo-liberal policy advice on industry and government services.

Employer agenda

The Productivity Commission is the vehicle for delivering the Business Council of Australia’s policies, proposing specific “reforms” to the system. It recently published a set of issues papers seeking responses to a series of questions. From the questions it is clear that it is considering:

  • gutting or abolition of modern awards
  • retaining National Employment Standards, but re-examining what should be covered in them
  • reducing minimum wage
  • setting of minimum wage on state or regional basis
  • cutting back what is permissible in an enterprise agreement
  • abolishing or weakening unfair dismissal laws
  • workers trading off conditions for pay rises
  • abolishing penalty rates
  • abolishing pattern bargaining
  • unions not permitted to negotiate a single agreement with a principal employer that applies to all workers, including contractors, on building or other sites
  • greater reliance on non-union, individual arrangements
  • individual, non-union, common law agreements outside of the Fair Work Act – only required to meet legislated minimum requirements such as the National Employment Standards
  • application of competition law banning cartels to trade unions – such as unions making common claims or negotiating similar agreements
  • expanding what constitutes industrial action to threats or other areas
  • imposing harsher enforcement arrangements for disputes
  • changing to right of entry for union representatives to workplaces.

The Commission does not give consideration to the ABCC. The government wasted no time in pushing forward with legislation for a revamped and more powerful ABCC. At present it is pressuring cross-benchers to support it.

The Commission gives the impression of focusing heavily on measures to deregulate the industrial relations system for employers, exclude trade union representation and focus on individuals “negotiating” with employers.

Collective bargaining is an absolute right for all workers, to be negotiated between trade unions and employer organisations with rank and file involvement. Individual contracts leave workers completely vulnerable to the dictate of employers and should be abolished.

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) proposes the following rights as the basis of new industrial relations laws that would improve the position of working people:

The Right to Belong

  • unrestricted right of workers to join unions
  • unrestricted right of unions to recruit new members (ACTU to determine areas of coverage)
  • workers to have the right to access union representatives at any time including during working hours
  • legally binding guarantees against discrimination because of union membership or affiliation
  • repeal of ABCC legislation

The Right to Organise

  • the right of unions to exist and be legally recognised as representatives of their membership
  • union representatives to have the right to unlimited access to workplaces for recruitment and organising purposes
  • paid union meetings and trade union training
  • legislated rights for union and worker involvement in all industrial and OH&S issues in the workplace
  • * union elected OH&S officers with power to stop work on a site

The Right to Protections

  • the right to an adequate living wage and good working conditions of employment, with an immediate increase in the minimum wage
  • the right for workers to industry-wide collective union-negotiated agreements and comprehensive awards that apply to union and non-union members alike
  • abolition of individual employment contracts or other forms of “agreement” that allow employers to undermine negotiated wages or conditions, including those made under common law
  • guaranteed wage indexation to, as a minimum, keep up with the cost of living plus productivity increases without trade-off of conditions
  • right to permanent full-time work
  • a 35-hour week without loss of pay
  • five weeks annual leave, 15 days sick leave and carer’s leave to cater for family and childcare issues
  • leave loadings and penalty rates to be restored and increased to the highest current levels for all workers
  • equal pay for equal work
  • twelve months paid maternity leave
  • repeal of contractors legislation so that sub-contractors are employed with the same rights and benefits of other workers.
  • no limit on conditions included in awards, EBAs, industry or pattern bargained agreements

The Right to Strike

  • no legal barriers to strike and other legal action as the basis of new legislation
  • repeal of all restrictions and penal provisions
  • secondary boycotts to be legalised.

A change of government alone will not bring about the required changes. It will be the strength of the movement in workplaces, on the streets and in the education of workers and involvement of the wider community that will be decisive in delivering workers’ and trade union rights such as those listed above.

The fight against the Abbott government is only beginning:

Fight for our rights…

... the right to belong

... the right to organise

... the right to protections

... the right to strike

Next article – Editorial – Dissent among the “free-marketeers”

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