Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Rudd’s IR policy: Work Choices lite!

Reading Time: 6 minutes

On April 17, leader of the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd gave a speech to the National Press Club. The speech gave a glimpse as to what an ALP federal government would look like if it gets elected to power later this year.

Rudd’s speech sent a clear message to big business. He made it clear to them that they would be in safe hands with an ALP government. Absolutely no threats would be made to their profits as the Labor Party will continue on with attacks against working people, all be it with the friendlier and younger face of Rudd.

Rudd explained that contrary to previous statements he would not be tearing up Work Choices but instead be retaining significant parts of it. Many people have already dubbed his policy Work Choices MK2 or Work Choices lite. The debate taking place at the moment in the union movement is: Is this a sell out or was this a necessary compromise in order to win the election?

Whilst Rudd’s entire policy was not released he did mention several key parts. The issue will be discussed at the ALP National Conference later this month but you can be assured that not much in the way of detail will come out of it. Even the conference did want to make changes it would not be binding on the federal caucus.

Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs)

Pretty much the only good piece of news in Rudd’s announcement was that he planned to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements or individual contracts. This should be seen as a victory for the union movement as these contracts are Howard’s sharpest tool used for driving down wages and conditions. It is obvious that the union movement has won the debate about individual contracts and this is reflected in Labor being forced to follow through with its promise to abolish them.

No right to strike

Rudd’s policy made a clear attack on every workers fundamental right – the right to strike. Under a Rudd government workers will only be allowed to take protected industrial action during a ‘bargaining period’. This is only when workers are negotiating a new enterprise agreement. All other forms of industrial action will be deemed illegal. The only real weapon that workers have is their ability to withdraw their labour. Everything that the union movement has won in the past was won by workers going on strike. In many cases this was done illegally and it seems that under an ALP government this will have to continue.

Secret ballots

Rudd stated that he supported mandatory secret ballots of workers before any strike action was taken. This is not an issue of democracy as Rudd and Howard would have us believe. It is more about giving employers the ability to restrict the right of workers to bargain with their muscle. Conducting secret ballots is a long drawn out affair. Under Work Choices in most cases it has taken over a month from the time workers decide to conduct a ballot to the time they actually go on strike. This gives employers plenty of time to prepare for a strike. In most cases they can outsource work, stockpile goods or organise scabs. Unions should be able to determine how they run their own organisations. There are no such restrictions on companies why should they exist for workers.

Pattern Bargaining outlawed

Rudd reinforced Howard’s policy of outlawing pattern bargaining. This means unions will be restricted in their cause to pursue industry wide agreements and workers will not be able to strike to support a level playing field in their industry. This means workers in smaller workplaces who have less industrial muscle will be forced to accept lower wages and conditions compared to workers doing the same work at larger companies. Rudd made no mention of employer pattern bargaining especially under Work Choices where bosses are forcing workers to sign identical individual contracts in order to drive down wages across the board.

Still legal to sack workers unfairly

The ALP will reinstate unfair dismissal laws but only after workers serve a ‘probation’ period. The period will be 12 months for workers in businesses with 15 employees or less and 6 months for workers in businesses with over 15 employees. This means that all new employees will have to tread carefully. Raising safety issues or being active in your union will guarantee you to be found ‘unsuitable’for your job. Whilst this is a slight improvement on Howard’s policy it is by no means good enough. It still legalises the unfair sacking of workers.

Necessary compromise?

The right wing of the union movement and the vast majority of the ALP think that this policy is a necessary compromise in order to win the election. ALP candidate and Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Bill Shorten said he personally supported the policy which would “restore balance” between employers and workers, as neither side at the bargaining table should have more power than the other.

“It’s a balancing act and (Rudd’s) never going to make everyone happy and sometimes perhaps if no one’s completely happy you’re probably doing a good job,” Shorten said. “What he’s done is he’s struck a balance” Shorten said.

This point of view stems from the fact that not only do union leaders like Shorten fully support capitalism but they in fact agree that workers and not bosses will need to accept some cuts. This will be taken to a new level when the economy begins to slide in to recession.

Rudd has challenged the union movement to embrace a more ‘flexible’ system for a modern economy. “There can be no going back to the industrial culture of an earlier age,” Rudd said last week.

‘Left’ union leaders retreat

Rudd also hammered leader of the AMWU, Doug Cameron. Rudd said “It’s time Doug Cameron got used to the 21st century – I mean taking industrial action and going on strikes is a serious matter”

“This is an entirely reasonable and balanced position from our point of view … for Doug or anyone else to object to that I don’t think is fair dinkum or real.”

Initially some unions came out and criticised Rudd about his policy. Many like Doug Cameron have since withdrawn their criticism. It seems Cameron is more interested in securing pre selection for his seat in parliament rather than rocking the boat by putting forward a principled position and the views of AMWU members.

ALP candidate and Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Bill Shorten said “unions would be more interested in presenting a united front than arguing over the policy to help Labor at this year’s election now they could see victory was possible”. ACTU leaders like Sharon Burrow and Greg Combet have also backed down and given their full support to Rudd.

The ACTU and individual unions have pumped unprecedented amounts of money into the campaign to get Labor into power at the next federal election. These leaders should now be required to answer some very serious questions.

For people who are supposedly professional negotiators they have given total uncritical support to Labor without getting any prior commitments on policy. Millions of dollars of workers money has gone to a party that wants to openly keep them in chains. The basis of which they have done this is that we have to do whatever it takes to get rid of Howard.

The argument that the ALP is the lesser evil and therefore we should support them is one that constantly comes up. Obviously there is a growing mood that we need to get rid of Howard. But this should not translate into uncritical support for the ALP. The logic of this argument says that just because you are hungry you should eat a shit sandwich!

Sell out

Rudd’s IR policy is a total sell out and a disappointment to workers across the country. His speech coupled with the mistaken strategy of the ACTU to derail the movement against Work Choices definitely led to the lower than expected turnouts at national protest actions last weekend. This was especially the case in Melbourne where a movement that once consisted of 250,000 people on the streets with a militant mood was successfully turned into a quiet picnic day with less than 700 attending.

Workers are disappointed in both the Labor and ACTU leaderships but at this stage see no way forward. If the ALP does win the election, as is looking more likely, it will only be because of the hatred of Howard not because of a ringing endorsement of Labor policies.

New workers party needed

The Socialist Party has participated in the debate about which way forward for the campaign against Work Choices from day one. Right from the start we not only argued for an industrial response to the laws but we also warned against pinning the union movement’s hopes to the ALP. Rudd explained very clearly in his speech that the ALP is not a party that exclusively represents workers.

The ALP, just as much as the Liberals is a party that is wedded to the profit driven capitalist system. They are not interested in the slightest in restoring any form of balance. They will introduce whatever cuts and attacks are necessary to ensure that profits are maintained and that their friends in big business are kept happy. The only way to genuinely restore balance into society is to change the capitalist system.

Working people have the problem on their hands that they currently have no party that represents them. We need a party that exclusively represents workers against the attacks waged by big business and their representatives in government. The Socialist Party has for some time argued that the Australian working class needs a new workers party.

We call on unions to stop wasting workers money on the ALP. We need to start the process of bringing together the militant unions, progressive community groups, the small socialist parties and the thousands of left wing activists together to create a party that will fight for the interests of the working class as opposed to the interests of the bosses.

If Rudd is making announcements like this prior to getting elected imagine what he will be like if he does get into power.

By Anthony Main


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