Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Unions fined more under Labor than Liberals

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The Victorian Construction division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has been fined more under the ALP’s ‘Fair Work’ regime than under the previous Liberal Government’s ‘Work Choices’ laws.

During the 2010-11 financial year fines totalled a massive $2.5 million. On every occasion the fines were for actions relating to protecting wages, conditions and health and safety standards.

By Kirk Leonard, Socialist Party

The ALP was elected in 2007 with huge donations from unions and on the back of a massive campaign against ‘Work Choices’. These laws were designed to make almost all industrial action illegal and undermine the ability of unions to negotiate collectively.

The Liberal’s main aim was to undermine wages and conditions in order to boost profits for their big-business backers. The best way to do this was to cut across worker’s ability to organise in trade unions.

The ALP promised to get rid of ‘Work Choices’ if they were elected. They also promised to scrap the ‘Australian Building and Construction Commission’ (ABCC). The ABCC is really a special police force set up to break the construction unions who have historically been very good at securing some of the best wages and conditions in Australia.

Even before the ALP won office they began back pedalling on their promises. After four years in government the ABCC still exists and the new ‘Fair Work’ regime is nothing more than a rebadged version of ‘Work Choices’. All the provisions for limiting industrial action and fining unions, union officials and rank and file workers remain.

It is clear that the strategy put forward by the union leaders has not worked. Merely replacing one boss’s party for another has not led to any significant changes in the law or in the practices of the state.

While the construction unions have been able to secure decent wage deals in the context of a still booming industry and a skills shortage, the presence of the ABCC and the draconian laws still need to be addressed.

This may not seem like a pressing issue at the moment but it will become all the more important when the industry begins to take a dip. The government and the employers are only dabbling at the moment, testing the resolve of the unions in a quiet period before they start to step up the attacks.

They know that the economic situation is quite unstable. It will be in the context of a slowdown that the precedents of the recent fines are used to undermine jobs, working hours, health and safety as well as wages themselves.

Alongside preparing industrially for the possibility of a downturn the unions need to develop a political strategy to take on the government and their anti-worker laws. The Socialist Party calls on unions to follow the lead of the Victorian Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and break with the ALP.

This would be a good first step but as the old saying goes “no politics in the union means boss’s politics in the union”.

Further to breaking ties, the union movement must move towards establishing a new workers party which could bring together militant unions, progressive community groups and the existing left. A mass left-wing party that unashamedly represents all ordinary people is desperately needed in Australia today.


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