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Issue #1730      May 11, 2016

Government aims at bleak future for unions

At a “Future of Industrial Relations” meeting in Sydney recently, pitched largely at lawyers working in the industrial/workplace relations area, federal Minister for Employment and Minister for Women, Senator Michaelia Cash, together with representatives of employer groups, outlined the right’s agenda for industrial relations “reform”.

The familiar union bashing bile was spewed forth directed at the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), and the usual job-creating and productivity justifications claimed for strengthening anti-union laws and slashing penalty rates. But what also became clear is that the industrial relations reform strategy will be particularly targeted at winning the support of women.

Senator Cash, the main speaker at the meeting set the tone. And it was vicious. Alluding to union “bullying, thuggery, violence and intimidation” in the building and construction industry, she called for tougher laws and increased penalties, including prosecutions – even when industrial disputes have achieved settlement.

“We want to increase the penalties, have penalties that mean something – that are going to hurt,” she said.

Wilhelm Harnisch, boss of the outfit representing building and construction industry employers, Master Builders Australia, followed Cash’s lead. “A bunch of thugs who want to hold this country to ransom, to impose their will for unlawful industrial purposes,” was how he vilified the CFMEU.

The other speaker at the Future of IR event, Russell Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Australian Retailers Association, was more restrained in his language but called for a reduction in penalty rates. He told the meeting that his organisation has asked the Fair Work Commission to reduce Sunday penalty rates in the retail industry from double time to time and a half.

The policy agenda outlined by these employer representatives and the federal Minister at the Future of IR event – penalising/criminalising legitimate industrial activity by unions and cutting wages and conditions – is familiar. As too, is the rationale put forward for these policies.

Harnisch said the federal government’s proposed re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) is “about the community, the economy, jobs”. He said the industrial relations system “must be an enabler not an inhibitor” of the building and construction industry in maintaining jobs and investment in Australia.

On the ABCC, Cash said its restoration was necessary because of the importance of the building and construction industry to Australia’s economy. Together with the establishment of a Registered Organisations Commission, it was clear from Cash’s contribution that the government wants a toughened regulatory regime to ensure that unions and union officials obey the law.

Referring to a reduction in the days lost to industrial action under the previous incarnation of the ABCC, Cash made it obvious that the plan is to eliminate the ability of unions, particularly the CFMEU, to adequately represent the interests of their members.

Senator Cash also referred to the changing nature of work and said it was necessary to have the right framework and policies for industrial relations in the era of the “global economy”. She said Australia needs a “future-focussed” industrial relations system to create the framework for business and industry creating jobs and increasing productivity. This is code for having an industrial relations system focussed on creating more “flexible” workplaces – flexible in the interests of bosses: casual employment, no job security, on-call at all hours, reduced penalty rates, etc.

Cash said that in the “24/7” future workers will want to be “constantly connected” with their workplaces. Yeah right! She said employees do not necessarily want a 9 to 5 job.

On the question of cutting penalty rates, Zimmerman said, “shops need to be open virtually all hours,” adding that the “cost of labour” prevents that from happening.

Women in the strategy

In a brazen attempt to drive a wedge between the union movement and women workers, and to win the support of women for the government’s reactionary industrial relations policies, Senator Cash suggested that increased participation of women in the workforce is being blocked by what she claimed was the bullying conduct of union officials making employment in certain industries – especially building and construction – unattractive to women.

She asked rhetorically: “Are girls going to be subjected to the kind of behaviour that in any other workplace is unlawful?”

Wilhelm Harnisch also took up the issue. Pointing out that only one or two percent of employees in the building and construction industry are women, Harnisch laid the blame squarely on the CFMEU. “We have probably the most militant union in Australia,” he said, “preventing women working in the construction industry.”

Warming to his theme, Harnisch said there is “industrial thuggery every day, bullying” in the building and construction industry, and that women do not want to go to work and “have a union bully yell at you”.

And there it is: unions which vigorously prosecute the interests of their members are said to scare off women from seeking employment in certain industries!

Cash also tied the theme of increased women’s participation in the workforce to the quest for ever more “flexible” workplaces. Calling for “cultural change” and affordable and accessible childcare as well, she said greater flexibility in workplaces will benefit women, as they “in particular, want the flexibility to be with their children.”

Paternalistic, patronising, and supremely cynical, this aspect of the industrial relations strategy of the government and its far right supporters is aimed at alienating women workers from unions, and at winning the support of women for a crackdown on union activism and for the reduction of wages and conditions in the name of flexibility. It is a strategy that must be exposed and fought.

Next article – Case study – Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC) in practice

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