Federal Budget signals escalation
of war on workers' rights
by Bob Briton Unfortunately, much of the discussion about the recent Federal Budget has focussed on what sort of lunch a $5 a week tax cut might buy, and the potential for a Federal Liberal leadership change to leave us with an "Abbott and Costello" government. Far more serious are proposals that will attack workers' pay and conditions and fund changes that will ensure more of the same into the future. For most of this year, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott has had 15 Bills before the Parliament that promise to deliver bigger, easier profits to the bosses and to tie the hands of unions. The Budget has been used to good effect to advance this agenda. One of the more obvious measures is to deny access to any of Australia's 38 public universities access to $404 million worth of Commonwealth capital grants if they do not force their staff onto individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements — AWAs). With these contracts, universities will be expected to take away their staff's rights to take industrial action and be represented by their union. Clearly, Abbott has become frustrated with the slowness of his plans to de- unionise the workforce and has taken this opportunity to press forward. Government policy papers foreshadow similar treatment for workers in health and community services and in the rest of the education sector. The Minister is also revisiting a proposal put to Cabinet last year to increase the proportion of Commonwealth public servants subject to non- union AWAs. Abbott finds it disappointing that only 1.2 per cent of these employees are covered by AWAs and that unions have been "misusing" secret ballots to defend workers' interests. It seems that, on a number of occasions, unions such as the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) have applied successfully to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) to recommend a secret ballot of employees on their preferred form of agreement before the commencement of negotiations. Not surprisingly, virtually all the various agencies' workers involved wanted unions to negotiate on their behalf. "This culture of collective decision making does not easily co-exist with the maintenance of professional standards and responsibility", the Minister laments. Unfair dismissals The Budget sets aside $16.8 million to pay for another 12 federal industrial relations Commissioners. They will be needed to handle the extra caseload resulting from the Commonwealth's plans to wrest nearly all unfair dismissals powers from the States. Abbott is looking to use the "corporations powers" given to the Commonwealth by the Constitution to remove the consideration of unfair dismissal claims of workers employed by incorporated businesses from the States' industrial relations systems. This would leave the states responsible for about 15 per cent of workers employed by small, unincorporated businesses. The expectation is that the States would eventually give up on maintaining their own industrial relations commissions and hand the remaining workers over to the Commonwealth's "care" in the same way that Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett did in 1997. Naturally, Abbott is keen to disguise these "reforms" as a perfectly innocent push for a simplified and unified system. He loves to taunt the unions as they resist these moves, describing them as latter day "states righters". The issues at stake, however, are to do with workers' rights to protection from unfair dismissals and how to keep them out of the clutches of a minister hell bent on stripping away all such safeguards. Regrettably, it looks as if the Democrats are set to blot their industrial relations copybook once more. While the issue has not come before the Democrats' party room, Federal Leader Senator Andrew Murray favours the overall intent of the Government's Termination of Employment Bill. Most legal opinion has it that any challenge from the States against the Commonwealth's grab for power would, most likely, fail. Also part of Abbott's "single national workplace relations system" drive is a Productivity Commission inquiry into the possibility of setting up a national framework for workers' compensation and the formulation of occupational health and safety laws. The Minister's centralising zeal had been contained for a while when a Parliamentary inquiry into workers' compensation fraud failed to produce the evidence needed to justify his "reforming" touch. The report of the Cole Royal Commission into the building industry — widely regarded as an anti-union witch-hunt — has resuscitated these plans. Workers' Compensation The bosses are keen on this one. One labour hire firm was quoted in The Australian Financial Review last week as looking forward to reducing their workers' comp bill from $15 million to $12 million under a Commonwealth scheme. Abbott would have us believe that these savings would come from lower costs of administration. He has further said that opposition from the different state trades and labour councils has to do with an image problem — that their representation on state workers' compensation boards is needed to justify their existence. He maintains that a "generous benefit structure" would be available under his proposals. By the way, this is the same minister that claimed that the striking Morris McMahon employees — expected to work for between $11 and $12 an hour without paid breaks — are being offered a "Rolls Royce" deal from their employer. Building industry The building industry remains the focus for much of the Federal Government's anti-worker push. The Commonwealth will deny contracts for the $5 billion a year's worth of infrastructure and other building work to those behind "building employer-union cartels". He is referring to negotiated agreements that cover the wages and conditions of all workers on a site, regardless of which contractor or subcontractor employs them and to the practice of what is known as "pattern bargaining". Pattern bargaining involves the simultaneous negotiation of enterprise agreements in different workplaces, and the attempt by unions to gain uniform basic conditions across the industry. The Budget will provide $6.9 million to fund an extension of the interim building industry taskforce until June 30 next year and another $17 million to carry on the work started by the Cole Royal Commission. The failure of the very first case arising from the Royal Commission against CFMEU Victorian Secretary Martin Kingham has not discouraged the Federal Government. It seems prepared to gamble a lot of our money on putting the boots into the unions. Abbott has already announced the establishment of the provisionally named Australian Building and Construction Commission to police unions and workers in the industry. It will have the power to compel witnesses to testify, bring prosecutions, enforce judgements as well as "police" inner- city building sites. In the meantime, the Commonwealth says it does not want powers to control executive pay levels, which have grown from 22 times average weekly earnings to 74 times that figure since 1992. An "honour" system will suffice for them. The Government does not appear embarrassed, either, by Parliament's own $85,000 per annum superannuation scheme. Former National Party Senator Bill O'Chee was a notable beneficiary of this selective lack of Federal Government reforming vigour when he received a $1 million super payment at age 35!