|Issue No 37||29 October 1999|
Second Wave: Reith's Non-Right to Strike
By Marian Baird
- Department of Industrial Relations, University of Sydney
Peter Reith has called his new laws the Workplace relations Amendment (More Jobs Better Pay) Bill 1999. If legislation is to carry these new, colloquial titles then the 'More Control, Less Freedom' Bill would be a better title.
The proposed changes control unions and workers even more tightly than at present and there is less freedom to organise and act collectively. One of the areas where this is most obvious is the 'right to strike', if it can be called that.
The freedom, or right, to strike is regarded internationally as an essential tool of labour movements, and without it their power to bargain successfully to protect and improve wages and conditions is significantly reduced. In Australia there is no absolute 'right to strike' and the government proposes to hem workers in still more.
For the last twenty years the number of strikes and the number of workers taking strike action in Australia has been declining, reaching an all time low this year. This fact hasnít stopped the federal government trying to clamp down on workersí rights still further.
The Workplace Relations Act 1996 did contain a limited right to strike when bargaining over wages and conditions for a certified agreement. But there is no lawful right to strike over issues that arise during the life of the agreement, usually a period of two years. So, for example, strikes about the allocation of overtime or the interpretation of rosters are unlawful.
Under the changes proposed in the Bill, the existing 'right to strike' is to be further restricted. To lawfully take any industrial action, including strike action, a number of procedures must be followed. The industrial action is then called ìprotected actionî.
Let's look at these procedures. The union (or a group of workers) has to ask permission to take action at least five days before they plan to take the action and a secret ballot of the members must be taken. In order to obtain the permission to hold the ballot the union must apply to the Workplace Relations Commission. The application must include the questions that are to be put to the voters, the precise nature of the intended industrial action and the day or days on which the action is to take place.
If approved the Commission will make an order for the secret ballot to be held. The ballot will be run by the Electoral Commission, or an approved balloting agent. The cost of the ballot is to be met by the applicant (ie usually the union) and 80% of it will then be refunded. For strike action to actually proceed, 50% of the eligible people must vote, and 50% must then vote in favour of the industrial action.
Even if the strike action is approved by the majority, there is no requirement for all of the voters to participate in the action (an open invitation to scabbery?). The process is time-consuming and costly, and it doesnít stop there. Assuming that a lawful strike can be organised, the unionís hands are still tied because the strike, or period of protected action, cannot last longer than 14 days. If it does, the Commission must terminate the action. So much for a right to strike!
The irony is that making it difficult to go on strike doesn't mean all's well in the workplace.
Workers can and will express their dissatisfaction in other ways. Workers may not come to work for the day, take a sickie and engage in absenteeism. They might just choose to leave their jobs, to quit, or if they canít find another job, they might just work slowly and unproductively, or as a last resort, consider sabotage. Who can blame them if they cannot express dissatisfaction in a collective and organised manner?
It is quite clearly the case that unions and their members may not want to strike at the drop of a hat. They may prefer to settle their differences with employers by bargaining, but sometimes there is no alternative. Restricting the right to strike further, as the current amendments propose, is an absolute and unnecessary attack on the rights of all workers.
This article was first published in WorkSite
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