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Issue No. 320 18 August 2006  
E D I T O R I A L

Fixing the WorkChoices Mess
While the Rights at Work campaign has galvanised opposition to the Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation, the debate about what sort of system should replace it is just hotting up.

F E A T U R E S

Interview: A Life And Death Matter
Macquarie Street and Canberra are squaring off over safety in the workplace, NSW Minister for Industrial relations, John Della Bosca, explains what's at stake.

Unions: Fighting Back
When John Howard's building industry enforcer started threatening people's homes, one couple hit the road. Jim Marr met them in Sydney.

Industrial: What Cowra Means
The ruling on the Cowra abattoir case highlights the implications of the new IR rules, according to John Howe and Jill Murray

Environment: Scrambling for Energy Security
Howard Government hypocrisy is showcased in its climate change manoeuvring, Stuart Rosewarne writes:

Politics: Page Turner
A new book leaves no doubt about whether the faction came before the ego, Nathan Brown writes.

Economics: The State of Labour
The capacity of the state to shape the political economy and thus improve the social lives of the people must be reasserted, argues Geoff Dow.

International: Workers Blood For Oil
A new book by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson lifts the lid on the bloody reality of US backed democracy for Iraq's trade unions

History: Liberty in Spain
Worker Self-Management is good management. The proof in Spain was in Catalania, Andalusia and continues in the Basque Country, as Neale Towart explains.

Review: Go Roys, Make A Noise
Phil Doyle thought he'd find nostalgia, but instead Vulgar Press' new book, Maroon & Blue is a penetrating insight into the suburban mind under stress.

N E W S

 Spin Bowls Fair Pay

 “Battler” Liberal on Safety

 Radio Rentals Launches Hit

 Under the Pump

 Privacy Goes East

 Which Bank Tossed Out of Court

 Mum Lashes Feds

 Sack Boss a Loser

 Let's Fly AWA

 Star City Bangs Wages Drum

 Prof Offers AWA Lesson

 Howard Stands By His Men

 Wife Miscarries After Attack

 Activist's What's On!

C O L U M N S

The Locker Room
Ruled Out
Phil Doyle plays by the rules

Fiction
Tommy's Apprentice
Chapter One - Tommy and "The Boy"

Politics
Westie Wing
Ian West wonders what might happen if the NSW Coalition actually did win power next March at the State elections.

L E T T E R S
 Love Me Slender
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Editorial

Fixing the WorkChoices Mess


While the Rights at Work campaign has galvanised opposition to the Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation, the debate about what sort of system should replace it is just hotting up.

It's clear that a 'roll back' position is politically untenable, indeed, the system that WorkChoices demolished was itself the result of Senate amendment to an earlier wave of anti-union legislation.

The Holy Grail is a viable alternative that protects workers rights while ensuring a dynamic and vibrant economy that creates secure jobs that underpin a healthy community.

To its credit the union leadership is approaching this challenge in a systematic way. A group of senior union leaders are finalising their report after a fact-finding mission to Europe and North America.

These recommendations will be debated at the October ACTU Congress before becoming official union policy. Those unions affiliated to the ALP will then have the opportunity to press elements of the package into the platform Labor will take the people at the ALP National Conference in early 2007.

This is no small task - what is being designed is the next system of work laws to govern the nation.

The restoration of fair dismissal rights, enforceable bargaining rights and a fair process for determining the minimum wage are key elements of this new agenda. Debate here will revolve around workability rather than ideology.

But a more fundamental question is the debate is over the industrial relations regime that delivers these rights - whether the movement signs up to the Howard Government's vision of a unitary system or maintains the dynamic federation of a federal-state arrangement.

This is one debate that may get little public attention - we know that the composition of federal-state relations will have little impact on voters. But this does not mean it is not significant to the future of the movement.

Proponents of the unitary system talk of 'modernisation', that a national economy needs one set of rules and regulations for the workplace. On the face of it, this argument has merit, a practical sign that unions are prepared to modernise. Scratch the surface though, and the argument falls down.

In an era of free market extremism, the state systems form a buffer, not just for the workers they protect, but for the ideas behind them. As WorkChoices strip back rights and conditions, the NSW IRC is delivering minimum wage increases, maintaining harmonious work relations and enforcing its legislative mandate to put fairness in to the workplace.

As State Labor Government's around the nation are discovering, these systems are one of their strongest assets in laying out their credentials to govern.

Cashing these in for a shot at running the national economy is a big gamble. Yes, you may gain power for a few terms, but then the pendulum swings back to the Tories the entire population will be at their mercy. Why would unions prefer hedging on the state systems where they have had far more electoral success?

Beyond these political considerations, the jury is also out on the economic merits of a unitary system - according to the Productivity Commission, there is 'little pay-off' in a unitary system.

Further, the Productivity Commission argues that 'horizontal competition' between the Commonwealth and the states is healthy for the national economy, allowing new approaches to be trailed in one jurisdiction and then spread nationally.

Think of some of the recent advances from workplace surveillance protection to gender pay equity - devised in NSW, trialled here, then refined and adapted in the other states. Conversely, conversion of casual employment to secure work has been won at a federal level and then applied by state jurisdictions. The advances have ebbed and flowed between systems, but they have all been in a positive direction.

In this context it is easy to see why big business wants to see an end to the state systems where workers rights have been seeded and nurtured. Understanding the union movement's readiness to give them away is harder to fathom.

Peter Lewis

Editor


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