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Issue #1843      October 10, 2018

Along class lines

Howard’s End

Compulsory conciliation and arbitration existed in Australia for over 100 years. In that time there were a number of changes but in essence it remained the same with the same objectives – to prevent and settle industrial disputes by conciliation or when that failed, by arbitration and enforcement by an industrial Court governed by industrial law outside of the common law and corporate law systems.

Photo: Anna Pha

Soon after Federation in 1904 the Australian government on behalf of the ruling class created an arbitration system to control unions and moderate the class struggle (State systems were already in existence). The turbulent time and strike action of the 1890s was firmly in the minds of Australia’s bosses and rulers. Trade unions had taken a thrashing at the time and also called for a system of compulsory conciliation and arbitration.

The Conciliation and Arbitration Act provided for legal registration of trade unions and employer organisations. Arbitration provided centralised awards which were legally binding on trade unions and employers. Awards which tended to cover an industry or occupation eventually contained most of the issues related to wages and working conditions that arose. Despite its role being to prevent and limit strike action, compulsory arbitration from time to time failed in that objective, and in some periods strike action reached high levels.

As a consequence the penalties imposed on trade unions for strike action and for failing to observe decisions of the Court, were steadily increased by both Labor and Liberal governments.

The Hawke Labor government, elected in 1983 commenced the process of dismantling the centralised award system, a process continued by the Howard government’s Workplace Relations Act which limited the scope of awards to 20 “allowable matters”. Awards are subsequently being stripped and further eroded today.

The Hawke government introduced “enterprise agreements” which broke down the dominance of awards as the basic industrial instrument. The flow-on effect of this movement away from all-encompassing industry agreements was the introduction of individual contracts, Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) by the Howard Coalition government, and an attempt to enshrine this form of individual contract as the primary means of specifying wages and working conditions. Howard’s WorkChoices laws effectively did this and the Australian people through the union and community campaign for “Your Rights at Work” were successful in removing the Howard government, largely because of their unpopular industrial legislation.

The Accord

One of the main features of the Hawke and Keating governments was the advocacy of collaboration between the government, trade unions and the employers. This process which took the form of a Prices and Incomes Accord (the Accord) relied upon removing basic and irreconcilable differences between capital and labour. The process could not achieve this but succeeded in disarming the rank and file of the trade union movement who were withdrawn from struggle, particularly strike actions, while trade union leaderships assumed their place at the table negotiating on behalf of workers under the false illusion that there were common interests between labour and capital.

This destructive period of class collaboration resulted in huge decreases in trade union membership density and the loss of wages and working conditions in many areas. The trade union movement is yet to fully recover from this period.

The Your Rights at Work campaign was a proven positive influence on trade unions and saw a re-engagement of trade union members in the huge campaign to get rid of the Howard government. The workers who participated were more interested in getting rid of WorkChoices; the removal of the Howard government was necessary to get rid of WorkChoices.

Collective to individual

The Howard government’s Australian Workplace Agreements shifted the move from collective to individual agreements to a new level by making this individual form of employment arrangement the very basis of their industrial relations policy.

All governments since the Hawke government have been part of the process of moving away from broader industry type arrangements for workers. The Howard government accelerated the process toward individualism and the exclusion of trade unions in the process of determining wages and working conditions.

Successive governments have been implacably opposed to any form of industrial action by trade unions and supported and encouraged the use of the penalty provisions. The Workplace Relations Act and then with WorkChoices, in particular, further increased penalties against trade union activity.

Many forms of industrial action were for all intents and purposes banned. The Rudd Labor government signalled its intention of merging and further dismantling awards by reducing them to 10 minimum standards and maintaining them purely as a safety net.

The creation of specific forms of state organisation such as the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) under the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act was – and is – used to control and penalise unions and individual workers in that industry.

The formation of a special industrial police force, the ABCC, to monitor trade union activities and to spy on individual workers was implemented by Howard.

Your Rights at Work

Industrial Relations was the main issue at the federal election in 2007 which saw Rudd become PM, moving many thousands of people to alter their vote and shift to removing Howard and the WorkChoices laws. The Australian people expected to see the removal of WorkChoices with the removal of the Howard government and with the ascension of a Labor government. Many were bitterly disappointed.

This is instructive as a federal elections looms in 2019 with Bill Shorten held up as the “alternative”.

CPA proposals

The CPA believes we need to continue to campaign around IR issues to eventually see industrial relations legislation enacted which provides working people with the best opportunity to take on the forces of corporate greed prevalent in society today.

  1. Collective bargaining as an absolute right for all workers, negotiations between trade unions and employer organisations with rank and file involvement. All forms of individual contracts to be abolished and replaced by collectively bargained union agreements.
  2. Collective agreements to cover all workers in an industry. NO restrictions on pattern bargaining.
  3. The right to strike to be incorporated in law.
  4. Trade unions to have right of entry to workplaces to represent workers and to organise the workforce in appropriate forms.
  5. Legislation banning secondary boycotts and strike action be repealed.
  6. The abolition of “Greenfield” agreements.
  7. Legislation targeting a specific union such as in the building and construction industry’s ABCC, be repealed.
  8. Labour shortages to be overcome by skills training of Australian workers as the priority. The importation of guest workers be arranged through international cooperation and international agreements between trade unions. Guest workers to be guaranteed established Australian rates of pay and conditions.
  9. An Industrial Relations Commission be retained with appointments to the Commission comprising an equal number of trade union and employer representatives.

Next article – Chan Han Choi must be freed

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