Australian Labor Government looks to preserve most of Howard’s industrial reforms

In November last year the Australian Labor Party was elected to office on a tidal wave of opposition to the previous Howard government’s industrial reforms, which had threatened to scrap award conditions as well as undermine collective bargaining rights.

However, just like the New Zealand Labour Government’s introduction of the Employment Relations Act shortly after their election in 1999, the ALP’s proposed new industrial legislation actually promises to change very little for workers, as the following report from the Socialist Party of Australia makes clear.

Many workers have welcomed the news that Labor Party PM, Kevin Rudd is going to ‘dismantle’ the previous Howard government’s industrial relations laws. The reality of the situation is that far from dismantling the laws, Rudd plans to leave most of Howard’s Work Choices legislation intact.

On February 13 Labor introduced the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill into parliament. While the bill does outlaw new Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) it also allows bosses who have used AWAs in the past to use a new form of individual agreement called an Interim Transitional Employment Agreement (ITEA).

These agreements are practically the same as AWAs and will be allowed until the start of a new industrial relations system that won’t be functional until 2010. All existing AWAs will also remain in place. Considering everyone now agrees that individual contracts were the key plank in winding back wages and conditions, this is hardly a radical shift away from Work Choices.

The laws will only include 10 very basic matters that will underpin Awards and Agreements. Rudd will also ask the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to ‘modernise’ and ‘simplify’ all of the current industry Awards. These buzz words are mere code for stripping back Awards to a bare minimum and the process will not lead to any improvement in working conditions.

Under Labor’s new laws ‘flexibility’ clauses in all Awards and Agreements will allow bosses to roll over many conditions into annualised salaries. What Howard achieved through individual agreements, Rudd is doing under the guise of ‘flexibility’.

The bill maintains all of the worst aspects of Work Choices. It makes next to no changes in relation to unfair dismissal and union officials will still be subject to the draconian right-of-entry laws. This hinders unions from organising and representing their members properly.

Workers will only be ‘allowed’ to strike in a bargaining period. Which is only when an agreement has expired. The requirement that workers will have to conduct a secret ballot before taking industrial action also stays. Any worker who takes ‘unauthorised’ industrial action will face fines of up to $6600 just as they did under Howard. Unions are still threatened with large fines if they don’t stick to the rules.

Disgustingly Labor has also said that it will maintain the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The ABCC is armed with extraordinary powers that allow it to prosecute unions and workers for alleged ‘illegal’ industrial action. This body has been the main tool bosses in the construction industry have used to deal with unwanted strikes.

Not surprisingly many bosses are quite happy with the content of Rudd’s IR laws. Australian Industry Group chief executive, Heather Ridout said the Bill was “balanced and workable for business”. She knows that in an economic downturn it will be the Labor Party who will be much better placed to keep workers in check through their control of the trade unions.

Unfortunately instead of campaigning in the workplaces and on the streets to force Labor to introduce decent industrial laws, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have decided that they will waste millions of dollars on advertising campaigns to lobby conservative MPs.

This approach is a total waste of time. Considering the ACTU are professional negotiators you would have thought they might have got some better assurances than ‘Work Choices Lite’ before spending the millions of dollars getting Labor elected.

The union movement needs to take on an entirely different approach to politics. Because Rudd has no alternative economic policy to that of Howard he will be forced to carry out the same policies. Every time that will mean putting the interests of big business ahead of those of working people.

Rudd has already started preparing the working class with comments like “we must have wage restraint”. This proves that Rudd just like Howard is happy to let workers bear the brunt of any economic downturn while his big business mates are looked after.

The solution is for the union movement to organise an independent political and industrial campaign that is focused on shop floor organising and the mass mobilisation of workers. This campaign would produce propaganda, but mainly its task would be to organise industrial action to fight against individual contracts, to shut down the ABCC and to ensure we have the right to strike.

Anything short of this will only end in disappointment and the working class going backwards during Rudd’s time in office.

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