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Issue #1429      23 September 2009

Trade unions – big battles ahead

The election of the Rudd Labor government has certainly not created a bed of roses for the trade union movement. The process of “award modernisation” is posing a threat to the income of many workers and creating turf wars over union coverage. Howard’s building industry police force is more active than ever in intimidating and harassing building workers and their unions. Employers are on the offensive to exclude trade unions from collective workplace agreements. The battle is on over Labor’s new individual flexibility clauses in agreements.

WorkChoices might be gone in name, but in practice much of the old legislation remains, including the virtual outlawing of any form of industrial action by workers.

Individual flexibility

When the Australian Workplace Agreements (the Howard government’s individual employment contracts) were abolished, Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard reassured employers that they could still have the same flexibility to determine individual arrangements under its Fair Work Act, through individual flexibility clauses in workplace agreements.

Campbell’s Soups attempted to insert a new “individual flexibility clause” in an agreement being negotiated with its workforce at its Shepparton plant in Victoria. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) strongly opposed the clause. During the struggle Campbell’s stood down 150 employees to pressure them into accepting individual flexibility clauses that had the potential to undermine wages and working conditions. The union agreed to flexible arrangements only on the basis of “discrete work teams”.

Workers were also locked out in another dispute over individual flexibility clauses by Visy at its food packaging plant in Melbourne. They had imposed limited work bans.

Under the Fair Work Act, it is obligatory to include a flexibility clause in every enterprise agreement.

Award modernisation

“Award modernisation”, a process of amalgamating and stripping awards back to a relatively small number of simpler, industry-based awards is creating new battlefields. The original promise that no worker would be worse off has been replaced by vague promises of a five-year transition period and the possibility of “take home pay orders” for some disadvantaged workers.

The Industrial Relations Commission has been holding extensive negotiations with unions and employers and Gillard, intervening to protect employers from time to time where they might have to pay a few dollars extra.

The various awards being amalgamated to form new awards contain differing wage rates, penalty rates and allowances. They also involve awards with differing union coverage; some of these unions have taken a strong stand and made significant gains for their members. Other, right-wing led unions have done little to improve the wages and conditions of members.

At issue are not just wage rates, but penalty rates; in some cases there were no paid allowances or on site conditions (eg whether work continues in rain or extreme heat). The employers and government are pushing to give coverage to right-wing unions and reduce many of these conditions to the lowest common denominator.

The promise of a five-year transition period, at best would restore lost wages and conditions to those who suffer such losses. This is a nonsense, there will be no catch-up; they will be lucky if wages even keep pace with inflation. As for penalty rates being phased in, employers are determined to abolish them. It will not be an easy struggle. The unions will not be able to rely on the Minister intervening to gain “take home pay orders”.

Right of entry obstructions

Howard’s restrictive legislation making it difficult for trade unions to gain entry to a workplace has been replaced by right of entry provisions that give employers the power to determine how that occurs. Contact with members in the workplace is limited to meal and other breaks. The employer can decide the location.

Previous access to members where they were working, enabling a trade union official to check out safety, is denied. Instead, union officials are given a space outside the manager’s office (in full view) or a few hundred metres from the work area, in the open. With a break of only 15 or 30 minutes for a meal, this eats into a worker’s time.

In practice, these employer powers are being used to obstruct contact with members and recruitment of new members. They constitute a serious breach of freedom of association.

ABCC

The ABCC, if anything, has gone on the offensive in recent months, fighting unions and their officials in the courts and summonsing workers for interrogation. It is not difficult for them to gain signed statements claiming some official said something a year or two ago.

A letter inviting them to an interrogation session with small print at the bottom warning that failure to attend means six months jail, sets the scene for compliance. How can anyone remember what a union official said at some meeting a year of two ago?

Unions can be up for huge expenses fighting for justice against the ABCC QCs and multi-million dollar union-busting budget.

Non-union agreements

While some employers are prepared to negotiate with unions, others are moving fast to step in and stand over workers to accept a non-union agreement.

For example, more than 300 workers at the bionic ear manufacturer Cochlear’s plant in Lane Cove, Sydney, have now voted six times in favour of a union-negotiated enterprise agreement.

For almost two years the workers have been trying to get the company to recognise and negotiate with the union and the company has responded with veiled threats to sack its workforce and move offshore. 

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