New Labour Laws Look To The Soviets
New Labour Laws Look To The Soviets
Australia's trade unions are set to become the kind of powerless, empty shells that unions were under communist dictatorships
The main purpose of the Howard Government's new industrial relations laws is to destroy the trade union movement.
It's true that to this point almost all attention has been focused on the effects of the new laws in directly undermining job security and guaranteeing a significant reduction over time in employees' wages and conditions. But while unions are around, workers acting collectively still have some power in negotiating agreements and protecting themselves against unfair and unjust behaviour.
That's the main reason the federal Government needs to destroy unions: to take away the last vestiges of that power. How will the new industrial relations laws do this?
First, the right to collectively bargain will in practice disappear. Employees can belong to a union but they can't ask that union to negotiate an agreement on behalf of the workers concerned unless the employer agrees. If the employer insists on individual contracts, that's that. Even the US requires employers to collectively bargain if 50 per cent or more of employees want it.
Second, industrial action such as strikes is effectively outlawed. This is because you need to have a secret ballot to take industrial action. In practice, this will take weeks and lots of money to organise. By the time you do all that, the matter will have passed on. In any case, ministers now have wide powers to prohibit various types of strikes.
Third, unions will no longer have any serious right of entry to workplaces to talk to employees. They have to give 24 hours' written notice. Employers can demand to know who the union wants to talk to and for what reason. Employers can dictate where unions can talk to employees (for example, in a room next to the boss's office).
Unions have no right at all to enter a workplace where workers are on individual contracts, even if the employees want them to visit.
Fourth, large fines will be imposed on unions, employees and, in some cases, employers for asking or even seeking to have certain things included in an agreement.
For example, there could be a $33,000 fine for anyone who asked for an unfair dismissal clause to be included in an agreement or asked for unions to be involved in dispute-settlement procedures.
Fifth is a matter that has received an awful lot of attention in the past few days. Kim Beazley has pointed out that under the new industrial relations laws it is prohibited to include in a workplace agreement any provision that would allow safety training by a trade union of the kind that is so important to the two men trapped in a mine in Beaconsfield, Tasmania.
Beazley has been savagely attacked for this by Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews. He has stood his ground and ferociously counterattacked. Here's proof Beazley is right. In Queensland, Newlands Coal Pty Ltd recently negotiated a workplace agreement with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. The agreement included the following clause: "Subject to written application and company approval, union representatives may, at the discretion of the company, be provided with unpaid leave of absence to attend to bona fide union business."
Hardly radical or onerous: written application required, employer's consent required, it's at the discretion of the company, the leave is unpaid, and it must be for bona fide union business.
The draft agreement was submitted by the company to the Office of the Employee Advocate for approval. The OEA responded that "Chapter 2, Part 8, Division 7.1, Regulation 8.5 (1)(c) [of the Workplace Relations Act] provides that a term of the workplace agreement is prohibited content to the extent that it deals with leave to attend training (however described) provided by a trade union". The OEA continued that "bona fide union business can include training". On that basis, the OEA said the clause in the draft workplace agreement was prohibited.
So Beazley is right. It is impossible by law to include in an agreement a provision for trade unions to engage in what they now do on a widespread basis in Australia: that is, provide occupational health and safety training to workers.
The H.R. Nicholls Society is as hardline Right on industrial relations as any institution in Australia. Indeed, it was founded on hostility to the power of trade unions. Yet it has described the Workplace Relations Bill as Soviet-like on the grounds that it so interferes in relations between workers and employer.
I could describe it as Soviet-like for a different reason. As a diplomat for more than 25 years in a previous incarnation, I - and many colleagues - spent many hours arguing human rights issues against dictatorial governments, especially the Soviet Union and its acolytes. One of the things we argued for under Labor as well as Liberal governments was basic trade union rights. Now we have a situation where our Government wants Australian unions to be the kind of powerless, empty shells that unions were under those communist dictatorships. It is to this pass that our country has been brought.