Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Andrews plans new wave of attacks on unions

Chris Latham

On November 6, federal Coalition workplace relations minister Neil Andrews introduced a new raft of anti-union legislation in federal parliament.

The federal government's Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003, and its associated Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2003 were both read for a second time. In addition, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Choice of Award Coverage) Bill and a revised version of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002 were reintroduced into parliament. The new Workplace Relations Amendment (Better Bargaining) Bill was introduced into parliament for the first time.

These new pieces of legislation are central to the Howard government's new assault on the ability of workers and their unions to organise to defend their existing wages and working conditions and to fight for improvements.

The employment termination bill has three aims. The first is to continue the government's attempt to exempt “small business” from unfair dismissal legislation, reducing job security and protection for workers employed by businesses that have fewer than 20 employees. Under the bill, such workers will need to have been employed for six months before having access to any unfair dismissal provisions.

The bill will allow the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) to deal with cases without a hearing, and to halve the maximum compensation that can be awarded to unfairly dismissed workers.

The bill also limits access to unfair dismissal entitlements for all workers — where redundancies are occurring in a workplace, there will be no access to unfair dismissal provisions. If workers find alternative work after being unfairly dismissed, the amount of compensation will be deducted from any back-pay order by the commission.

Most significantly, if passed, the bill will expand the number of workers covered by federal legislation, using the federal government's corporations' power, to include all those workers who are employed by incorporated companies. This represents approximately 85% of Australian workers, up from the 50% or four million workers currently covered.

Workers shifted to the federal system will lose their access to state legislation. If passed, the bill will strengthen the federal government's plan to create a single nation-wide industrial relations system.

The Choice of Award Coverage Bill is aimed at reducing the access of workers in small business to award coverage. When unions attempt to “rope in” workers into the award using a log of claims, it must be demonstrated that the union has at least one member in the workplace.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Better Bargaining) Bill is aimed at building on the restrictions on protected industrial action passed in 2002. The legislation would ban all industrial action that occurs prior to the expiration of an enterprise agreement. Currently, industrial action taken to resolve issues not covered in an agreement prior to its expiration, is still protected action.

The bill will also empower the AIRC to impose “cooling off” periods during bargaining, which will make any form of normally protected action taken during this period illegal. A “cooling off” period can be imposed where protected action threatens to cause significant harm to any person (in reality, to the profits of an employer) and where suspension of bargaining would not be against the “public interest”.

Application for a “cooling off” period could be made on behalf of, or by, persons directly affected by industrial action or by the relevant federal government minister. The effect of this provision for workers in education, health and the fire services, is that the government can move to revoke access to protected action, greatly reducing their ability to win decent agreements.

The government has also identified the vehicle manufacturing industry — in which the use by employers of “just in time” work practices means industrial action at a single components manufacturer can bring the entire industry to a immediate halt — as a key target for the legislation.

Furthermore, any industrial action that affects parties not directly involved in the dispute will not be considered protected action.

In his speech introducing the legislation to parliament, Andrews made it clear that this section of the legislation is aimed directly at blocking the use of pattern bargaining. However, its effect would be much greater, as any picket line that involved workers not directly involved in the dispute would also lose its protected action status.

The legislation would mean that establishing a community protest line such as at Morris McMahon in Sydney earlier this year would open workers and their unions to AIRC fines and civil suits by the employer.

Labor and the Greens have stated they are opposed to the legislation, and the Democrats have indicated they do not support some provisions in the Better Bargaining Bill.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #562


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