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  Issue No 118 Official Organ of LaborNet 02 November 2001  




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Desperately Seeking Solutions

By Peter Lewis

They might not call it 'industrial relations' in the spin of modern politics, but all the major parties have released plans that will affect the way we work over the next three years.

You can call it what you like: workplace relations, security at work, common human decency; there's a yearning for someone to come up with a response to the growing fear that the world of work is now a lottery.

With a steady stream of corporate collapses seeing workers left on the scrap-heap - often with thousands of dollars in unpaid entitlements - Australians are looking for solutions to some basic questions which go to their basic quality of life:

∑ how can I make my job secure so I can make plans for the future?

∑ is there a limit to the demands of hours I must work to keep my job?

∑ if my job disappears, what happens then?

The pointy-heads will tell you that workplace insecurity is a fact of life - a necessary flow-on from the benefits of economic deregulation which has seen more capital flowing into the economy, creating more jobs, even if they are less secure. They will tell you there are no easy answers, that we have traded off security for opportunity.

Over the past decade, this logic has been used top erode our system of industrial relations - by first the Keating and then the Howard Governments. That system was based on a comprehensive award system - with wages and conditions centrally set on an industry by industry basis, by a strong and independent industrial umpire. It was a system that's wet Australia apart form most other nations in the world and was the foundations for our ethos as an egalitarian nation.

Two major changes have undermined this system: first the push from awards to enterprise-based bargaining (under the former Labor Government) and then, under Howard, to individual bargaining. Parallel to this shift has been an aggressive push by some employers, supported by the conservative government, to de-unionise their workplaces by offering attractive contracts up front as an inducement to leave the union (knowing any extra expenditure now will be more than compensated later when the workers are no longer organized collectively).

At the same time as the award system has been weakened, so have the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission. Once the umpire had power to order parties to the negotiating table and broker a fair deal. Today its role is limited to applying penalties on parties (usually unions) that break the complex rules designed by the Howard Government to prevent them from properly representing their workers.

So faced with a grim world of work where there are no rules and no umpire, its hardly surprising that the issues are coming up as serious concerns in all the polling and focus groups. The challenge for the political parties is to come up with solutions, in an area where there are no easy answers.

The Government

The Howard Government's policy could be subtitled "you're not really hurting" or "tale your medicine, it will do you good, really". The Liberals believe the market is our best protector; that the market hates rules, so we should have fewer of them..

Howard argues the government has not gone far enough in deregulating industrial relations. The hung Senate in his first term forced Peter Reith to water down his preferred package and both the PM and his heir apparent Peter Costello, have flagged in the campaign that they'll revisit IR. A quick flick through the Liberals policy "Choice and Reward in a Changing Workplace" gives an idea of the flavour of this agenda.

The Liberals like talking about 'flexibility' - that is code for minimizing the number of rules an employer needs to abide by. Flexibility will be used to justify exempting small businesses from abiding by unfair dismissal laws - meaning there will be two classes of workers with different rights, depending on the size of the business they work in. Flexibility will also be the justification for further stripping away the award system and the powers of the IRC. There's also the promise to protect workers entitlements, although with more fine print than a scratch lottery ticket. Redundancy, is defined as the "community standard" of just eight weeks, even though most agreements - and even the NSW standard - have far more generous clauses. The only situation where eight weeks will be a "community standard" is when Abbott gets back and hacks away at this hard-won right.

Then there are the 'rights' for workers - rights such as forcing secret ballots before strikes and further toughening the secondary boycott laws. Given that withholding labour is the one armory a worker has at its disposal, the Coalition's plan reads a little like unilateral disarmament - workers will have the right to have vastly reduced scope to assert their rights. How this agenda will do anything other than further erode job security is a mystery, but if a landscape without minimum standards or independent scrutiny makes someone feel secure

The Opposition:

Labor has repackaged its industrial relations policy as 'Security at Home', believing industrial relations casts Labor too close to the blue-collar unions. Pity, as its ties with a union movement with a public support base of 59 per cent (according to last Labor Council poll) should be regarded as a positive.

Regardless, Kim Beazley aptly launched Labor's policy in front of a group of dispossessed Ansett workers a couple of weeks ago. The plight of their unpaid entitlements is a major issue that is resonating across the country as more and more companies hit the wall. Labor's comprehensive protection - including full redundancy - delivered via a small increase in super contributions is a key difference between the parties.

Labor's other initiatives are to wind back some of the excesses of the Howard Government and bring industrial relations back to the Industrial Relations Commission. This includes giving the IRC the power to order parties to 'bargain in good faith', preventing the long and inhumane lock-outs which employers have used to break collective action by workers. The six-month Joy Manufacturing dispute was only the worst example of this tactic - which has returned to the industrial landscape under the Howard Government.

A Beazley Government would also wind back the spread of individual contracts by outlawing AWAs - the formal mechanism for scrutinizing and registering contracts - although there would be nothing stopping contracts outside the formal system. Its akin to the difference between rogue terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism - at least the government would not be pushing the model onto the workforce in the way it is now.

Labor has also promised to abolish the Employment Advocate, the body that has spent millions of taxpayers hard earned harassing unions when all the evidence says the biggest problem is that workers are too scared to join unions. Part of that money will go back into strengthening the AIRC, as well as the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission - two institutions that have taken a battering under the Coalition. So Labor's vision is about strengthening the institutions and framework for industrial relations. Retro policy? Perhaps. But if we accept we've taken the wrong fork in the reform road, the only way is to return to the crossroads and try something a bit more sophisticated than busting the unions.

The Minor Parties

Both the Democrats and the Greens are jockeying for Labor preferences, so their plans on industrial relations make for some interesting reading. Both parties recognise the legitimacy of trade union rights and the need to strengthen the IRC. Interestingly, both put an emphasis on a unitary industrial relations system - which ignored the fact that the Labor states currently have far stronger safeguards for workers.

The Democrats dress their policy up as being about balance "With Labor representing the interests of the big unions and the Coalition the interests of big business, the Democrats play a crucial part in ensuring that industrial laws are fair to all sides," their preamble reads. The Democrats have some Brownie points already for their work in the Senate in resisting some of the more noxious elements of the Howard-Reith reform packages. But they have to wear agreement on issues like AWAs and the weakening of the AIRC's powers that they allowed through the Senate in 1996.

The Democrats' 2001 policy speaks of strengthening the national and international labour institutions; softening the secondary boycott laws, removing common law damages against parties in industrial disputes and abolition of junior rates of pay. Interestingly the Democrats also explicitly support 'service fees' levied against non-members, something that state Labor Governments have explicitly ruled out.

The Greens industrial relations agenda is hidden on their website under their policy for 'Society'. The policy says all the right things - remove secondary boycott provisions, a national training accreditation scheme, support for unions, state support for women and the unemployed in the workplace, strengthening the AIRC and promoting collective agreements. An interesting green initiative is its support for employee-owned businesses - which dovetails with Tony Abbott's vocal support for employee share ownership initiatives.

More than the Democrats, the Greens push is for a return to the centralized industrial relations system - initiatives include legislative safeguards forcing employers to recognize and negotiate with unions and the re-imposition of a comprehensive federal award system. Indeed, the greens go further than Labor in asserting the roles of trade unions in the system - while Labor stresses the idea of choice, the Greens' model would place unions back at the center of the workplace equation.

In many ways, the Greens and Democrat policies reflect the old political divides. The Democrats policy can be read as "wet Liberal" - individual freedoms with recognition of the legitimacy of unions; the Greens a pre-Keating labor agenda where unions are part of the solution, rather than just a player.

As for One Nation? The self-styled Agrarian Socialist party has yet to post an IR policy on its website, although Hanson's voting record when in the Senate suggests she'd back further reforms form the Liberals.

The Wash-Up

The major parties offer a stark contrast - the Coalition will deregulate the labour market further, while Labor will pare back some, but not all, of the Reith agenda. The Democrats and Greens offer enough to be confident they would use any power they may bring to the Senate to stymie wholesale reform by a Coalition Government and broadly support the Labor agenda.

Back to our original question - is there a solution to this deep feeling of insecurity? - the answer is simple. Only one side is even trying: which is why a vote for a Beazley Government will be the only vote for job security.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 118 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Flying High
ACTU Secretary Greg Combet on saving Ansett jobs, defeating Howard and wooing a new generation of unionists.
*  Corporate: Howard's List of Shame
ACTU President Shaharn Burrow runs through the litany of corporate collapses and down-sizes that have cut a swathe through the Australian community.
*  Campaign Diary: Week Four: The Battle Lines Drawn
It was a week that saw the leaders launch their campaigns, kiss lots of babies and battle for space with a Holy Jihad.
*  Industrial: Desperately Seeking Solutions
They might not call it 'industrial relations' in the spin of modern politics, but all the major parties have released plans that will affect the way we work over the next three years.
*  Economics: Manufacturing Prosperity
Neale Towart looks at the hidden debate of the election campaign - the degree of intervention government should take through Industry Policy.
*  History: War And Politics
The Conservatives are trying to wage war and win the election. The pundits say itís a tried and true recipe for electoral success. The 1940 federal poll suggests otherwise.
*  International: Globalising Labour
On the eve of the International Metalworkers Federation Congress general secretary Marcello Malentacchi argues all nations need to retain a manufacturing base.
*  Review: Security - Who Needs it?
What does it mean to be secure? Should we even need to ask? In his new book, Anthony Burke asks the tough questions.
*  Satire: Locksmith Promises "Greater Security" If Elected
A Melbourne locksmith has agreed to run for federal parliament, campaigning on the key issue of security.

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»  The Soapbox
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