Earlier this month, Labor leader Kevin Rudd enunciated what amounts to a radical break with standing Labor policy. As we will shortly consider in more detail, the changes effectively challenged the right of Australian workers to strike: banning the withdrawal of labour in all but a small number of scenarios, and threatening with sanctions those workers who exercise what is really a fundamental human right.
Rudd’s shift of direction was announced only days before the coming ALP National Conference. The change of direction has been portrayed as a fait accompli: with no time for the expression of dissent, and with unionists and Labor members under pressure to keep silent or otherwise voice their support, lest they undermine the position of the leader.
All in all, the episode gives one the impression that Rudd has internalised the notion that business will only tolerate Labor governments which accept a scenario of “one step forwards, two steps back” when it comes to worker’s rights.
What is more, this reality, which undermines democracy to its very core, must remain unspoken lest the ALP risk further alienation of the powerful business lobby. Labor is always called upon to compromise: but always to the Right, and never to the Left; always to accommodate the worst currents of authoritarianism and conservatism; and always to distance itself from the industrial wing which gave it birth.
It would be best, first, to consider the changes introduced by the Government, as many of these are now being supported by the Opposition Leader.
The government’s laws
As Chris White explains in the Journal of Australian Political Economy, Australia is currently experiencing the lowest level of industrial disputation seen in 45 years. And yet for the Conservatives there is a zealous ideological drive to push the labour movement into marginalisation, irrelevance and extinction. Current laws threaten unions with injunctions, fines, and “make unions civilly liable for damages under common law”.
Howard, however, has gone further, targeting building unions specifically, and threatening individual unionists with massive fines or jail for failing to implicate their workmates, taking strike action, or even for action as trivial as a brief stop-work meeting.
In addition, White lists a number of repressive laws introduced under WorkChoices that threaten worker’s fundamental rights:
- pattern bargaining strike action is made illegal;
- strike pay is banned - even where industrial action is made inevitable as a consequence of strident attacks by employers on worker’s rights, wages and conditions;
- compulsory secret ballots are made a legal condition for strike action;
- the AIRC and the relevant federal minister have unprecedented powers to declare strike action illegal. Union claims are illegal where they contain “prohibited content” such as requests for trade union training leave, or the acceptance of unfair dismissal provisions. Fines of $33,000 will apply to those seeking to claim “prohibited content”;
- strikes are outlawed during the life of an agreement; and
- strikes as a means of political protest are outlawed
These repressive provisions have formed the basis of Australia’s new industrial relations regime: a regime that flies in the face of our commitments to worker’s rights under the relevant ILO conventions.
Furthermore, the system of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) which the Conservatives have promoted as a vehicle to replace collective bargaining, have almost exclusively provided “flexibility downwards”.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, research that the Federal Government had been suppressing “reveal[s] that 45 per cent of Australian workplace agreements have stripped away all of the award conditions that the Federal Government promised would be ‘protected by law’ under WorkChoices”.
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