We need a fighting union leadership
The passing of the Industrial Relations Bill took place without a blush.
Yet the passing of this bill will significantly change the lives of many Australians both in the short and the long term. For it signals the end of industrial relations as we’ve known them in this country. No longer are wages and working standards to be fixed through the award system, but through a system of workplace agreements. For all the talk from the Democrats about the protection of the Industrial Relations Commission and the award system, they have been rendered secondary to workplace agreements which are designed to sap union power and render workers vulnerable in negotiations, and without machinery to complain if agreements are not honoured by employers.
ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty is playing down the effects that the new legislation will have. He is quoted as saying that the bill was ‘little more than a sideshow’ and that the real changes in the Australian workplace were a ‘revolution sweeping workplaces and transforming the working lives of ordinary Australians.’ There are certainly major changes taking place in all workplaces, but to deny that the new Industrial Relations Act will have much impact is an abject lie. This Act is central to the changes which are about deregulation of hours worked, loss of job security, loss of penalties and overtime, loss of the ability to organise and the loss of centralised monitoring of equal pay and other social justice issues.
Kelty should know better than anyone the effects of weakening the award system and its arbitration machinery, of leaving workers vulnerable in the face of workplace negotiations for conditions, of outlawing strikes and introducing hefty penalties during the period of an agreement, of restricting secondary boycotts, of weakening unfair dismissal legislation so that many sacked workers will be discouraged from making complaints. All workers know how difficult it is to negotiate workplace agreement in a climate of ‘anything goes’.
This is just the latest in a long line of ACTU lies. When the Kennett government changed the industrial relations legislation in Victoria, the ACTU urged workers not to take strong industrial action against the changes, but to move to federal awards. When the federal award system was threatened by the federal Liberal Government and workers showed their preparedness to fight by descending on Canberra from all over Australia they were told to go home and ‘leave it to the Democrats’. Now they are being told not to worry, the new legislation is ‘just a sideshow’.
Kelty claims that the new legislation has given the green light to workers to join unions, yet he refused to see the green light that workers gave the ACTU to fight the legislation before it was passed. Even after large numbers of unionists made their anger and determination to fight apparent by storming Parliament House, the ACTU, disowned and condemned that anger instead of directing it into industrial battle.
The fact is that the amendments made in the Senate were minuscule and will make very little difference to the main focus of the legislation.
It may take some time before the workers in unionised sectors feel the effects of this legislation, but for those working in small unorganised areas, the effects will be immediate. Employers now only have to incorporate bare minimums into the agreements they make with individual workers. Even these bare minimums are only as good as the industrial services which support them.
Worker’s must take grievances to the Employee Advocate, which is a government appointed body which has no credibility for independence.
In Victoria we have seen the industrial relations changes accompanied by a running down of the industrial inspectorate, making it almost impossible for workers with a grievance to have their complaint heard. It’s important to remember that over 60% of the workforce are non-unionised and they will immediately be at the mercy of their employers, with little ability to organise into unions or to access what is left of the arbitration system.
Nevertheless the only way forward is through the union movement. Now, more than ever it is vital for workers to be organised in fighting unions.
Organised workers have a responsibility to themselves and to the non-unionised to help organise vast expanding industries where union coverage is at a minimum. It is another cause for censure of the trade union movement that thousands and thousands of workers have been left to fend for themselves, while union leaderships have been too busy with amalgamations and vying for positions in the ALP and the new mega-unions to go out and do the hard work of recruiting and building.
There is no place in the union movement for so-called leaders who are not prepared to take up the cudgels against the onslaught on working conditions. The most basic feature of our standard of living has been attacked for long enough, a shake-out of all those not prepared to fight against this trend is well overdue. We must rebuild a fighting union movement.
By Lynn Beaton
Originally published in the December 1996 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist