What will happen to WorkChoices under the new Labour government?
Many in the Australian labour movement have been disappointed by Australia’s new Labour Party government. Instead of pro-worker alternatives to ‘WorkChoices’, the former Howard government’s radical anti-worker industrial relations reform legislation, Labour is failing to address key issues such as barriers to union organising and the prevalence of individual contracts. On the contrary, the new Labour government has placated business interests and pre-empted a jump in workplace bargaining activity. It is promising to stand tough against unions that engage in so-called “illegal” industrial action to reclaim pay and work conditions lost under WorkChoices. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, ‘I want to make it crystal clear it is illegal under Labour’s policy for there to be industry-wide strikes….We want people abiding by the rule of law.’
‘WorkChoices’ was one of the key factors behind the Australian Labour Party’s decisive win in the November 2007 national elections. Now both workers and employers are waiting to see just how far the new labour government will go to restore a system of equitable industrial relations.
WorkChoices appalled workers in Australia and abroad. Implemented in November 2005, the WorkChoices legislation:
• promotes individual contracts known as Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) rather than collective agreements (AWAs were introduced in 1996, predating WorkChoices).
• bans any clauses from workplace agreements that included unions, and
• reduces the minimum content of AWAs to five minimum requirements
• removes the ‘no disadvantage test’ requiring that AWAs offer no less than the relevant award conditions (i.e., the relevant work entitlements for the industry)
• bans pattern-bargaining and industry-wide agreements
• restricting unions’ entry into worksites
• severely restricts the conditions under which workers can take industrial action
• exempts companies with less than 100 employees from unfair dismissal laws (previously less than 20)
These reforms proved immensely unpopular. A more than ten million dollar public education campaign by the trade union peak body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), consolidated broad public opposition.
It is clear that the reform will not be overturned overnight. The recently-defeated Liberal Party coalition will continue to hold the majority of seats in the senate until by-elections in July 2008, and has the capacity to block any new legislation until then.
Moreover, the Labour Party has declared that no serious overhaul of the system will take place until 2010, when there will be a new award system and a new national industrial relations umpire, to be called Fair Work Australia. In the interim, temporary legislation will be proposed in mid-February which will prohibit any new AWAs and instead introduce ‘Interim Transition Employment Agreements’. Under these, which are still individual contracts, there will again be a ‘no-disadvantage test’, which will prevent conditions falling below relevant awards but also enterprise agreements; and there will be 10, rather than the current 5, minimum requirements.
Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said that the Government’s focus would be on keeping inflation and interest rates down. This is seen to be a reason for its restraint in supporting union campaigns, as inflation exceeded 3% per annum in 2007. The Labour Party is haunted by a reputation for economic mismanagement.
Many in the labour movement are disappointed. They criticize the Labour Party and the ACTU for not rolling-back restrictions on union organizing and industry-wide bargaining. Some argue that all existing AWAs should be annulled immediately, and say the proposed ‘Interim Transition Employment Agreements’ preserve the essential spirit of WorkChoices. Furthermore, many critics want to see medium-sized firms brought back under the jurisdiction of unfair dismissal laws, as they were before WorkChoices. For activists, repealing the restrictions on unions is a principal objective to immediately tackle, as well as increasing union representation in industries where working conditions have been eroded by AWAs.
The opposition industrial relations minister has openly committed to limiting union power and increasingly the prevalence of individual contracts in the workplace. It is still unclear how strongly the party will resist Labour’s roll-back of WorkChoices.
Sources: www.marxist.com, the age.com.au, 4 January 2008; local sources