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Issue #1758      November 23, 2016


More attacks promised

The Turnbull government looks set to bring the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and the Registered Organisations bills before the Senate this week. The ABCC bill and an accompanying Building Code are central to the government’s plans to destroy the Construction Division of the CFMEU and rid the industry of militant trade unions.

The two bills were the triggers for the double dissolution election on July 2 after the Senate had twice failed to pass them. It has taken the government more than three months to feel confident it may have negotiated the necessary deals with cross-benchers to get the bills through the Senate.

Ever since Abbott came to office in 2013, the Coalition government has set out to deregulate the labour market, slash wages and roll back working conditions. Impatient employer organisations have been putting the pressure on a desperate government to get on with the job.


The federal government aims to bankrupt the CFMEU with massive fines, criminalise legitimate trade union activity, hound and intimidate workers and exclude trade union officials from construction sites.

The bill before the Senate goes much further in removing basic rights than the Howard government’s original legislation. It outlaws pickets, including community pickets for the first time ever.

The definition of “protected” industrial action is narrowed, fines are increased and the Commission’s draconian powers are strengthened. (See Guardian # 1728, 27-04-2016, “The Australian Building and Construction Commission Mark II: Gestapo industrial relations laws”.)

If anyone is wondering why the CFMEU is the immediate target, it has nothing to do with corrupt or thuggish behaviour as the government would have us believe. They need only look at what the union has been achieving for its members.

Militant union

In a climate where wages growth has declined markedly in recent years, the Construction Division of the CFMEU has been able to win real wage rises. For example, the union has just signed off on an agreement with Lendlease for an annual five percent wage increase over the next four years – a total of 20 percent during the life of the EBA.

The new agreement with the giant property developer also gives workers a 36-hour working week, paid domestic violence leave of ten days a year and 12 days of paid personal leave in the first year of employment.

“The 5 percent per annum cost increase and other terms leaves Lendlease’s agreement in line with the agreements established by the rest of the industry over the past two years, with additional productivity measures negotiated including a tightened application of entitlements, clearer consultation provisions and better safety arrangements,” a Lendlease spokesperson said.

In other industries, wages are being increased by smaller amounts and less often. Feeling emboldened with the Abbott/Turnbull Coalition in office, employers are digging their heels in, prolonging bargaining periods around new agreements and holding back on making concessions.

Many workers have seen their income stagnate or even decline. The rise in casual employment is one of the factors behind this situation. Another is the decline in the rate of unionisation in some sectors of the economy.

Wages in decline

The decline in wages growth and actual decrease in wages paid are not confined to the mining sector where the end of the boom strengthened the hand of resources companies. It is across the board, in particular where workplaces are not unionised or trade union representation is industrially weak.

The proportion of wage rises above four percent per annum fell from just under 30 percent in 2012 to seven percent in 2016 – Abbott was elected in 2013. (ABS figures)

Women have also fallen further behind under the conservative government. Full-time average earnings of women are now $261.10 per week less than their male counterparts – a gap of 16.2 percent. For total average weekly earnings including full-time, part-time and casual workers the gap is 33 percent. (ABS)

Nurses, aged care workers, public sector workers, hospitality industry employees, shop assistants and hotel workers are amongst the lowest paid.

In the case of the nursing profession, where the union is well organised and fighting back, nurses are in the difficult position that industrial action such as strikes only hurts their patients and saves their employer money.

“Yellow” union

A 15-month study by Fairfax media revealed how deals being negotiated by the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) with major retailers including Coles, Woolworths and McDonalds were leaving staff worse off.

The study found that 250,000 workers were paid less than the award rate, saving big business more than an estimated $300 million per annum. The SDA had negotiated reduced penalty rates with Coles and Woolworths and at McDonalds staff were not paid penalty rates on weekends.

When the Coles and Woolworths agreements were challenged in the Fair Work Commission they were rejected as not meeting the better-off-overall test when compared with the award. The award itself is minimal.

Not surprisingly, the government is not pursuing the SDA and its right-wing leadership but it does have plans to replace the better-off-overall test with a weaker provision. The SDA is not the only union appearing to sell its members short and undermining confidence in the union movement amongst workers.

The ABC national public broadcaster and Fairfax media have revealed a number of other corporate rip-offs. Neither the Fair Work Commission (FWC) nor Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC) – Labor’s version of the ABCC) – are scratching the surface of corporate rorting of the labour market.

The massively funded and staffed FWBC is obsessed with hounding trade unionists and the FWC is largely focused on individual or small group cases.

For example, illegal sham contracts where workers are employed as “contractors” and denied their legal entitlements such as superannuation, workers’ compensation cover, paid leave, etc, are rife yet pass under the radar of these outfits. This is not limited to the building and construction industry.

Visa workers are left to the mercy of unscrupulous employers who treat them like slaves and threaten worker who objects or complains with deportation.

Federal public service

In the federal public service, workers in most agencies have not had a wage rise during the past three years or so. The agreements being put to agency staff seek to remove a host of long-held conditions – in some instances amounting to a 75 percent reduction in the content of existing agreements.

The Coalition government has forbidden back pay and placed strict limits on “enhancements” to workplace entitlements in the public service.

Then there were the young workers at Grill’d being ripped off under the guise of traineeships that never end.

Carlton and United Breweries workers are still fighting to get their jobs back after being sacked and offered their jobs back at 65 percent less pay.

The list of scandalous breaches of the Fair Work Act and dirty tricks by employers grows by the day. The government’s response is to try to wipe out the one force that is prepared to stand up to such employers and protect workers – militant trade unions.

Build the union movement

There is only one force that can halt this decline in wages, working conditions and deunionisation that is taking place. That is the trade union movement itself, with the support of the broader community.

It requires strong militant, independent trade unions that are prepared to put the interests of their members first. This includes education of unionists to raise the level of class consciousness, to develop organising and recruiting skills and knowledge of the principles of trade unionism which have been dulled over recent decades.

The Communist Party of Australia is committed to the interests of the working class and to providing whatever support it can to this task. This includes active support on pickets, education programs, using the Guardian to support struggles and promote activities.

Next article – Editorial – The best-laid nuclear plans

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