Labor has dealt itself out of the crucial workplace relations debate by failing to articulate a credible policy alternative to John Howard's new Work Choices legislation. Capitalising on public alarm about the industrial changes requires more than a degree of empathy with sacked workers, such as Cowra's distressed abattoir workers. It also requires policy boldness, to demonstrate an ability to lead creatively and achieve a real balance between productivity and fairness, a balance the community can accept as an expression of political good faith and sound economic management.
Howard's apparent success in deregulating the terms of the employment contract obscures a profound policy failure. In a backdoor attempt to undermine the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, reviled as the embodiment of pro-union government intervention, the government has created its own bureaucratic edifice of at least four federal bodies (at last count), all underwritten by a legislative and regulatory monster that seems to periodically replicate new forms. The Office of Workplace Services emerged as a post-Cowra public relations fix, apparently created to repair the damage generated by the government's legislation.
Labor should wipe the slate clean, committing itself to scrapping the AIRC, the Office of the Employment Advocate and the Fair Pay Commission (and indeed the OWS), replacing them all with a single federal authority, "Workplace Australia" (as we may describe this authority for the purpose of our argument). This body would assist employers, unions and employees in managing their workplace relations.
Of Howard's existing structures, Workplace Australia would most resemble the OEA, charged with ensuring that workplace relations are conducted in a productive, fair and stable environment. Workplace Australia's creed would be non-intervention: primarily Workplace Australia would assess negotiated employment agreements brought before it and check that they satisfied a substantial equity test.
This standard would not be tied to any one form of bargaining, and would set out a range of minimum protections and entitlements while clarifying that employers might have to rely on more than wishful thinking as legitimate grounds for dismissal.
Agreement-making could take the form of awards, enterprise agreements (union or non-union) and Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts).
In a truly deregulated system, unions would have as much right to participate in the varieties of bargaining as any employer, or the professional consultants who advised them, provided union participation was sought by the employee.
Rather than being characterised by a panel of judges and commissioners geared to an interrogative and interventionist process, Workplace Australia's structure would follow the OEA, with a director and deputy directors charged with delegated responsibilities (employment contracts; economic policy-productivity; workplace participation; dispute resolution; human resources and logistics). The directors could occasionally come together in a panel to hear specific matters, primarily minimum wage hearings. Dispute hearings would be discouraged. Arbitration would be a last resort, and its access defined and limited. The parties could be expected, for example, to pay for this service.
Labor and the unions must jettison their unrealistic goal of abolishing AWAs. AWAs are hardly widespread in Australian workplaces. Work Choices reveals the extraordinarily elaborate and artificial lengths to which the Howard Government has had to resort to try to boost AWA take-up rates.
Unions should accept the reality of AWAs and focus on presenting a case for superior industrial protection and service. To make that case, union structures require greater openness to rank and file participation and a more professional approach to their own management and service delivery. Unions must engage creatively with the opportunities provided by the growth of non-traditional private-sector employment rather than consolidating around outmoded and demarcated structures. Unions may combat Howard's appeal to the workers of the new economy by becoming a part of that economy and identifying with the new work force and its loose forms of affiliation and high service expectations.
The Federal Government does not owe the trade union movement a living. But neither should the government assume a prerogative to place onerous impediments in the path of union activism. Union participation is a democratic right, upheld by Liberal governments from Alfred Deakin to Malcolm Fraser. The Howard Government has no mandate to restrict this right or union access to their own members.
A future Labor government could facilitate union reform without providing a crutch for unions to lean on. Labor should commit itself to enhancing the quality of working life through a program of workplace participation, a project governed by principles of social citizenship: developing a community awareness of workplace rights as a fundamental reflection of the rights and obligations of citizenship. Enterprise bargaining was not, after all, intended as a narrow productivity mechanism; it should reflect a form of civic participation, of individuals exerting some influence over the quality of their working lives and the intrinsic relationship between work, family and community participation.
Why should citizens in a wealthy nation conceive of themselves as slaves to work, regulated by the top-down authority of employers who may at any time capriciously revoke their offer to employ? Australians don't want a life like that and national economic performance doesn't require it. Labor should be bold enough to offer Australia a better way.
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