by Anna Pha Workers, trade unions, the right to strike, awards, union agreements, and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission are the main targets in Reith's "second wave" of anti-union laws. Superannuation, long service leave and other workers' entitlements would be stripped from awards; pre- strike secret ballots made compulsory; sympathy strikes outlawed; and individual contracts would override enterprise agreements. These are just a few of the "reforms" proposed by Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith in a Discussion Paper released last week. The Discussion Paper is based on Reith's misnamed pre-election policy statement More Jobs, Better Pay. Reith and his advisers have analysed how trade unions have adapted and survived over the past two years despite his Workplace Relations Act. Unions are still successfully taking industrial action, awards have not been stripped back as far as Reith intended, union officials are still gaining access to workplaces, the waterfront and coal mining industry are still unionised, and the union movement is as strong as ever. The Discussion Paper proposes a raft of what Reith calls "reforms" to close the loopholes and strengthen the anti-union, anti-worker provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. The Howard/Reith Government's aim is to give employers the maximum flexibility and freedom to dictate wages and conditions and to maximise their exploitation of workers and hence profits. More award stripping "Awards will be focused on their genuine safety net role", says Reith, foreshadowing another round of award stripping. The present 20 "allowable award matters" would be stripped back even further. Superannuation, long service leave, tallies, jury service, trade union training, union picnic days would not be allowable matters. What little that remains in gutted awards would be stripped back to the bare bones, to the most minimal of wages and conditions. There would be a minimum wage. Classifications and incremental rates above the minimum would not be allowable in awards — they would have to be won in an enterprise agreement. Individual Contracts Even where the union fought for and won an enterprise agreement, the employer would still be able to sign up individual workers on secret AWAs which would override the Certified Agreement. Employers would not have to offer identical AWAs (individual contracts) to comparable employees, leaving the way open for all sorts of intimidation, harassment, victimisation and favouritism. Outlawing strikes The concept of "protected action" (when employers cannot sue for damages) during bargaining periods remains but with a number of additional hurdles. Before "protected action" could be taken, it would be compulsory to hold a secret postal ballot of members. The Industrial Relations Commission would oversee the process, with the power to decide whether the ballot should proceed, and what questions are put to the members. The present Act would be amended to "further emphasise the unacceptability of unprotected industrial action". The Commission would have wider powers to issue orders to prevent or stop industrial action and would be able to suspend "protected action" and enforce "cooling off periods". Employers would have speedy access to court injunctions and immediate access (at present there is a 72-hour delay) to common law tort actions to sue workers, union officials and unions. Unions would face costs and fines of millions of dollars, and individuals the loss of their homes and savings. Reith wants to tighten up existing provisions outlawing payment during industrial action. One of the ideas being considered is to outlaw payment for the whole of the pay period (could be a week, fortnight, month) during which any industrial action (e.g. refusal to work overtime on one night or a partial work ban) took place. All of these measures have the intent of weakening the ability of unions and their members to defend and fight for decent wages and conditions. The aim is for workers to "negotiate" with their arms tied behind their backs. Unions excluded In Reith's scheme of things union involvement constitutes "third party interference". Reith wants to clear unions right out of the workplace. He has already largely written them out of the Act, and proposes moving the provisions governing unions to a separate Act. "The existing deregistration [of unions] provisions will be amended to make them a more effective sanction for industrial misconduct." Union officials will need a written invitation from a member in a workplace before certification for right of entry can be gained. In the name of "freedom of association" Reith is scheming to make it easier for employers to shut genuine unions out, victimise individual workers and establish yellow company (enterprise) unions. He also wants to prevent "interference" by unions when employers attempt to introduce non-union agreements. Commission's role redefined The Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be renamed as the Australian Workplace Relations Commission and Commissioners appointed on fixed term contracts. The Commission would be restructured and put on a corporate footing with fees introduced for some of its services. It would continue to maintain the award safety net and certify collective agreements but its conciliation and arbitration powers would be reduced. The Employment Advocate, directly appointed by Reith, would have sole right to decide whether individual agreements (AWAs) met a weakened no disadvantage test. Compulsory conciliation would be replaced with voluntary conciliation (for a fee). This service would be in competition with private (accredited) mediators. The Commission along with the Courts would have a responsibility to stop and prevent "unprotected industrial action". Boycott disputes (secondary or primary under the Trades Practices Act) would, however, be dealt with as commercial rather than industrial matters through court processes. There are many other provisions including the unfair dismissal laws twice rejected by the Senate, starvation wages for young workers (also rejected by the Senate), and the exclusion of independent contractors from regulation as employees. These proposed amendments to the Act constitute the most serious challenge yet to the trade union movement. "There is no room for complacency or tinkering with the fine detail. They must be defeated", said Peter Symon, CPA General Secretary. "This is neo- fascist legislation and it lays bare the vicious anti-worker outlook of the Howard-Reith Government and the big corporations that they represent." The ACT TLC Assistant Secretary Peter Malone warned, "Australians now need to stand up and fight against these unfair proposals before it is to late."
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