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Issue No. 304 28 April 2006  

Canaries in the Coalmine
It was one of the defining symbols of the industrial era and the tenuous nature of working life – the bird in the cage whose expiration was a miner’s early warning that things were not OK.


Interview: Head On
John Buchanan has been warning that WorkChoices would be a car crash. Now he surveys the damage.

Unions: Do You Have a Moment?
CFMEU Mining national secretary Tony Maher lets fly at the new industrial laws.

Industrial: Vital Signs
In his new book, Craig Emerson argues that destroying unionism will not be in Australia's long term interests.

Economics: Taxing Times
Frank Stilwell argues that there are progressive alternatives to the slash and burn approach to tax reform.

Environment: It Ain’t Necessarily So
Don't let anyone tell you that jobs and the environment are opposities, argues Neale Towart.

History: Melbourne’s Hours
Neale Towart reluctantly pays homage to Victoria's celebration of the eight hour day.

Immigration: Opening the Floodgates
John Howard is deciding more and more foreign workers should come into this country - without the rights of citizenship, writes John Sutton,

Review: Pollie Fiction
For someone barely 25 years Sarah Doyle has an enviable track record in theatre behind her.

Poetry: The Cabal
Poetry returns to Workers Online with this rollicking ode to employer power.


 Hit Run Mum Bats For Son

 Revealed: Bosses Told To Blame Howard

 Amber Light for Pay Cuts

 Andrews Backs Armed Hold Ups

 New Front on High Court Attack

 Homer Takes Rights to India

 Tunnel Vision a “Disgrace”

 Mining Vigil at Day of Mourning

 Dad's Death Revisited

 Canberra Confidential, Andrews on the Run

 Rock Solid Tony For Sale

 SA Boss Not Trusted With Kids

 Army Declares War On Workers

 Unions Take On Space Invaders

 Activist's What's On!


Democracy in Action
Former NSW Premier Neville Wran's speech to commemorate 150 years of responsible government.

The Westie Wing
There has been activity aplenty in the NSW Parliament this month, reports Ian West.

The Soapbox
From Chaver to Cobber
John Robertson, Unions NSW Secretary, hosting Passover at Sydney Trades Hall discovers the first comrades followed a bloke called Moses.

Postcard from New Orleans
Mark Brenner surveys the long-term impact of Hurricane Katrina on the regions workers.

The Locker Room
My Country Right Or In Lane Five
Phil Doyle observes the golden shower at the recent Commonwealth Games, and asks what it means for the last great unpredictable drama.

Vale Bill Hartley
Unlike some of his comrades, Bill Hartley never departed from his position as a radical nor did he die rich in assets, writes Bob Scates.

 Win in the Post
 Belly Battles
 Answer is Easy
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Canaries in the Coalmine

It was one of the defining symbols of the industrial era and the tenuous nature of working life – the bird in the cage whose expiration was a miner’s early warning that things were not OK.

One hundred and fifty years later miners are still dying - an industry worth billions each year still failing to secure safe methods of extracting coal.

But beyond the Beaconsfield tragedy, morbidly coinciding with the international day of remembrance for workplace dead, is a growing push by the business lobby to wind back safety laws.

Exhibit One: we have a federal government gearing up for WorkChoice Mark II where the Commonwealth will take over the state occupational health and safety laws.

A benign proposal on paper, the real agenda is malignant - attacking the powers vested in state laws that grant accredited union officials rights of access to workplaces to police safety and, in some states, to close down unsafe sites.

These powers, life saving though they have proven to be, are hated by the ideologues in Canberra because they recognise the central role unions continue to play in the workplace.

Exhibit Two: the growing chorus from the business lobby to end the strict liability for employers to ensure a safe place of work.

This principle has been the real impetus for behavioural change by employers around safety because it determines that an accident is in and of itself evidence of a failure by the employer.

This means there is no wriggle room for a boss whose worker is killed - overturning this principle will create a market for lawyers to construct defences in abrogating responsibly.

Exhibit Three: The neo-conservative newspaper The Australian has commenced a campaign against NSW safety laws that allow unions to launch prosecutions for breaches of safety and receive a moiety where that case succeeds.

In a campaign choreographed from Canberra, the Oz wants unions out of the courts, arguing that these prosecutions are bad for business and bad for workers too. Try saying that to the victim of an armed hold-up whose employer has constantly refused to improve security.

Exhibit Four: Finally, strategies to bypass the penal regime that have been put in place are close to becoming a specialised field of law. From phoenix companies that fold when a worker dies (only to reconfigure and reopen for business once the prosecution is over and the fine has defaulted) to James Hardies breath-taking play to walk away from its asbestos responsibilities by moving to another jurisdiction, dodging what is due on safety has become smart business practise.

Which leaves us with a dangerous disconnect - between the reality of unsafe workplaces, exposed so forcefully in this week's Sydney Morning Herald and a business community using their new-found political power to shed itself of accountability on safety.

This is the pursuit of flexibility in the name of profit writ large - and it is the thinking that drives workplace rights back down the coalmines from where they surfaced so many years ago.

On this International Day of Mourning for Deaths in the Workplace we need to pay tribute to the lost miners - and all those needless victims of workplace accidents - by committing to fight these attacks on safety laws.

Because, right now, the budgie is belching ...

Peter Lewis



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