The Guardian May 12, 1999


Vicious laws

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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