||Issue No. 285||14 October 2005|
Howard’s Secret War
Interview: Under Fire
Politics: And the Winners Are ...
Economics: The Common Wealth
History: Walking for Justice
International: Deja Vu
Legal: The Rights Stuff
Review: That Cinderella Fella
Poetry: Is Howard Kidding?
The Locker Room
Hooray for Robots
Good Guy Done Bad
Howard’s Secret War
The first one is the blatant assault on the rights at work - it is being played out on the national political stage between the Howard Government with the backing of the big business lobby and the Australian community. It is rightly dominating the news as the government ducks and weaves around its economic agenda - to drive Australian wages down.
But in the shadow is a separate, more insidious attack - on an institution that has been integral to Australian way of life for the past 120 years - the trade union movement.
There have been whispers in the press - 'crackdown on union power' was one headline in the Murdoch press, using all the subtleties of language that have given us 'tax relief'' and 'the war on terror '. But the violence in the attack on unions is only becoming apparent as the detail of the government proposals come to light.
Trade union right of entry into workplaces will be severely curtailed: there will be no right of entry for discussion with employees on AWA's; where policing award, union officials will be required to provide particulars of breach investigated. It's all about strangling union activity.
Employers will control union meetings, determining where they can be held and can deny unions access to employment records.
There are also sever restrictions on the issues that be included in collective agreements - agreements can no longer include paid union meetings, union picnic days and trade union training leave - all provisions developed in recognition of the constructive role a well-organised workforce can play in a business. Instead, under these laws, individuals will be liable for fines of $33,000 - just for asking for these rights.
The right to take industrial action will be severely restricted - with complex secret ballots before strike action required and 20 per cent of cost of ballot to be born by the union. The government is also given extraordinary powers to declare any legal action unlawful if it deems to meet the very broad definition of damaging the national economy. And if you don't comply, your employer or any other business can personally sue you for any economic loss they incur.
In contrast, the laws fast track the growing practise of employer lock-outs - making Australia the only country in the world with one set of rules for workers and the other for employers exercising their industrial rights. And the Australian Industrial relations Commission, which used to be able to compel employers to negotiate and impose a settlement is they did not, can now only sit back and watch as workers are starved into submission.
The laws also curtail the rights of unions to represent workers during disputes, doing away with some of the legal grounds that have been successful in the past - including the freedom of association protections that won the MUA the Waterfront dispute.
Unions will also be barred from representing small businesses and contractors in parallel changes to the Trade Practices Act, stripping thousands of workers of the current rights they have to be protected by a union..
And the shining glory: new businesses will be able to negotiate agreements governing their future operations with themselves - a wonderful incentive to restructure and reconfigure companies if ever there was one!
If that's not enough, the federal government is using it's purchasing power to punish employers who offer workers collective agreements and, in the construction industry, setting up a police force to belt the union. If you are a construction worker you can now be jailed for refusing to divulge what goes on at a union meeting.
The real danger the union movement confronts is that these laws will make it impossible for them to carry out their core functions - organise workers, bargain and coordinate action. And if they can't provide these functions and people leave the movement, the BCA's and ACCIs of this world will say it's because unions are no longer relevant. It's legislative manslaughter dressed up as historical determinism.
At every turn these laws are dripping with malice and gratuitous violence to an institution that has done so much to secure the Australian way of life. And they have the gall to spend our money creating cover for this historical grab for power.
This, more than anything, is the legacy John Howard is setting for himself, the ultimate political prize, the destruction of the movement that created his political opponent. Because he knows without the unions, the ALP is nothing.
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