Interview: The Binds That Tie
Unions: Worth Cycling For
Industrial: The Elephant in the Corner
Legal: A Law Unto Themselves
Politics: Ethically Lonely
History: Women, Unions, Banners and Parades
Women: Relaxed and Comfortable?
International: The Last Social Democrat
Review: The Corpse Bride
Culture: Tony Moore Holds His Own
The Locker Room
A Free Vote
John Bares All
Tom A World Away
The Elephant in the Corner
You've seen the ads, attended the rallies, heard the warnings - WorkChoices is a dog - bad for working families; giving bosses unprecedented power; stripping away penalty rates and annual leave; driving down the minimum wage; and allowing Aussies to be sacked for no good reason.
It's all true. But there is another dimension to all this - the elephant the government has kept hidden in the corner. That's the way WorkChoices attacks trade unions and undermines our right to work together for a better life. WorkChoices is 700 pages of legalese and every section contains measures to sideline unions, push people onto individual contracts and to punish those who stand together.
Why? Because big business knows unions stand between it and complete control; and their man, the Prime Minister, is aware that without unions, his political opponents will be weaker. It is this unholy alliance that sees unions up against their biggest challenge in 100 years.
The federal government says the right to join a union will be "protected by law" but the practise will be very different. WorkChoices sets out to cut the links between working Australians and their unions.
Right of Entry to workplaces will be severely limited. Irrespective of who you elect, the AIRC will decide who is a "fit and proper person" to visit your job. With a Right of Entry permit, union officials must give the employer 24 hours written notice of their intention to visit. If they wish to examine reported "breaches" they must alert the employer, in writing, to the breach they intend to investigate, including the names of anyone affected.
While on site, officials must use a room dictated by the employer and they must follow employer instructions on how to get to and from that room. No union official may enter any site where everyone is employed on an AWA, even if they are all union members. Nor is a union official allowed into premises where employees are non-members.
A unionist breaching any of these provisions, or wrongly claiming Right of Entry, is liable to a $6600 fine and can be stripped of his/her Right of Entry. Unions can be fined $33,000 for every breach.
Stamping on Bargaining
Workchoices goes out of its way to stack the bargaining deck in the favour of employers. By giving notice, they can even terminate negotiated agreements and force employees back to five minimum standards.
The new minimum standards, for all Australian workers, are:
- Basic pay rates, built on the minimum adult wage of $12.75 an hour. There are no guaranteed minimums for "juniors" or the "disabled".
- Four weeks annual leave, with two weeks able to be cashed out
- A 38-hour working week, which can be averaged out over a full year
- Up to one year of unpaid parental leave
- Up to 10 days paid personal (sick or carer's) leave a year.
That's it folks, any contract that meets those conditions is legitimate. There are no provisions for overtime, public holidays or dozens of other entitlements we have won over the years.
If workers want to negotiate collectively and the boss doesn't, there is no provision for conciliation or arbitration to resolve the matter. This has led to Boeing workers at Williamtown, out of Newcastle, striking for months and the Prime Minister standing up in Parliament to back the "right" of the American arms manufacturer to reject collective bargaining.
There is no provision in WorkChoices for "good faith" bargaining. On the contrary, it encourages employers to use AWAs to undermine negotiated arrangements from the day they are signed.
Extraordinarily, employers at new operations, "greenfields" sites, can write their own contracts. True, they can negotiate with themselves, force resulting "agreements" on employees, and keep them in place for five years.
Grinding Down Negotiations
One of the reasons Workchoices is so complicated is because its authors have set out to predict every avenue working people might use to improve their lives, then tried to shut it off. This section of Workchoices blows two of the government's biggest lies out of the water.
Apologists for the changes claim they will get "third parties" out of Aussie workplaces, and that this federal government "trusts" employers and employees to do the right thing. Workchoices trusts nobody and green-lights third-party intervention at every step of the collective agreement making process.
It sets out a list of "prohibited" matters that it will be "unlawful" to agree on, even if both parties want to. Union members can be jailed for even asking for them. Basically, anything that assists union organisation, or recognises its right to be involved in workplace matters, is "prohibited". It is unlawful, in negotiations, to ask for paid delegate training; union involvement in dispute resolution procedures; union access to the workplace, union picnic days, etc.
Key protections for wages and conditions are also "prohibited". These include "pattern bargaining", and restrictions on labour hire or the use of AWAs. Pattern bargaining is government-speak for equal pay at different sites. Under Workchoices it will be "unlawful" for employees at two sites, producing the same materials in the same town, to ask for the same wages and conditions.
In case all this fails and third-party intervention is the only way to enforce government's will, the Minister for Workplace Relations has the right to strike down any clause by regulation. He doesn't need to go to Parliament. Once he puts a line through anything that is being, or has been, agreed, it is "prohibited".
Squashing Industrial Action
The right to strike will be "protected by law", according to John Howard. WorkChoices, however, drastically limits the right to take any form of industrial action. It will only be legal during bargaining periods that can be five years apart. And, it can never lawful in support of "prohibited" matters such as equal pay, restrictions on labour hire or anything else the Minister may take offence to, from time to time.
There are savage fines, up to $33,000 for individual unionists, involved in "unprotected" industrial action.
To engage in any form of "protected" action, workers must:
- apply to the AIRC to conduct a "protected action ballot"
- supply the employer with notice of that intention, including when, where and what the action will be
- organise a secret postal ballot
- the ballot will usually be conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission and unions have to pay 20 percent of its costs
- action must commence within 30 days of the result being declared
- action cannot begin until the employer is given three days notice in writing
- employers, on the other hand, may lockout their workforces, or individuals, without notice
In the event of any "protected" action being effective, Courts, the AIRC or the Minister of Workplace Relations can call it off. The Minister can stop industrial action, even before it starts, on a range of grounds, including that it would "adversely affect the employer".
The AIRC can order "cooling off" periods and can suspend or terminate bargaining periods.Third parties can apply to have 'protected' action terminated and can also claim unlimited damages against workers and their unions. Courts can order injunctions against "protected" action.
Taming the Beast
If that all sounds grim, the campaign to date shows that when the heat is on union members will pull together. To stare down this attack, we need to continue to be smart and disciplined. We will have to understand how the laws work, and decide where and when they can be challenged.
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