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RSS 2.0

Miners put spotlight on unions

By Steven Miles - posted Thursday, 11 May 2006

You could almost hear John Howard repeat those immortal words, “Any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up to work today is a bloody mug”. Almost.

Keen to bask in the reflective glory of an Australian miracle, John Howard even acknowledged the Australian Workers' Union. That must have hurt.

While all Australians have been captivated by the fascinating tale of Todd Russell and Brant Webb, Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews has been quick to scorn unions and the Opposition for drawing links between his WorkChoices legislation and the plight of the miners.


Which is what makes the role Bill Shorten played in the Beaconsfield story so interesting. The Australian Workers' Union secretary, often touted as a future Labor leader, has been the generally acknowledged spokesperson for the workers, rescuers and the Beaconsfield community throughout the whole ordeal.

How can the government continue to tell the Australian public that unions are an evil third party holding back productivity and the economy while every night on TV there is such a visible example of the important role unions play in the lives of about two million Australian workers?

Andrews and Howard must have cringed every time a news crew crossed “live to Bill Shorten with the latest news on efforts to save the trapped miners”.

First of all let’s be clear, WorkChoices does exactly what Kim Beazley said it does: it makes it illegal for workers to ask for an agreement that includes access to union-provided training - any union-provided training. Whether that’s occupational health and safety, dealing with workplace harassment or resolving workplace disputes.

The kind of courses tens of thousands of workers participate in every year.

Andrews’ attack on Beazley, with claims that workplace health and safety was a state domain, is undermined when you look at the response of employer groups to recent state Labor government legislative changes that enshrine a union role in policing workplace safety. “They’re undermining WorkChoices” was the Chamber of Commerce and Industry response.


And that’s without even considering the Federal Government’s threat to take workplace health and safety over wholesale, using the same corporations power employed by WorkChoices to exclude the states from private sector industrial relations.

But access to training is not the only common enterprise bargain provision made illegal by WorkChoices. For instance, it would be illegal for the workers to ask their employer to agree to allow Bill Shorten, or any other union rep, access to their workplace.

Under WorkChoices, if the Beaconsfield mine management had wanted to, they could have kept Shorten off the mine site. At the very least they could have required he provide 24 hours' notice, only occupy a designated office, to and from which he must travel along a course designated by management.

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About the Author

Steven Miles is an Organiser with the Queensland Public Sector Union and a postgraduate research student in Political Science at the University of Queensland.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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