Strengthen trade union-community unity to defend our rights at work

[Socialist Alliance statement on Kevin Rudd speech to National Press Club, April 17, 2007]

With his April 17 speech to the National Press Club Federal ALP parliamentary leader Kevin Rudd launched a pre-emptive strike against all those unionists, including Australian Labor Party members, who thought that the April 27-29 ALP conference would be debating a new industrial relations policy to replace the Howard government’s hated Work Choices legislation.

In an address that was designed to placate Australian business Rudd announced a policy that will not “tear up” Work Choices but retain significant parts of it.

There are just a few sops for workers—the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements, some tightening of unfair dismissal provisions and restoration of some basic conditions like penalty rates, overtime and public holiday pay.

1. The right to strike almost destroyed

Rudd’s policy attacks workers’ most basic right—the right to strike. Under it workers will only be allowed to take industrial action in the bargaining period for a new enterprise agreement.

Rudd will also only allow legal industrial action after a secret ballot conducted by an independent body. It can take weeks—a month in a recent dispute at Preston Motors in Melbourne—to get “the umpire” to hold a secret ballot for protected industrial action. This gives employers plenty of time to stockpile goods or contract out work to weather industrial action.

Moreover, even this right to protected action will not be automatic—the employer will have a right of appeal against union applications for a strike ballot.

Employers will be able to carry out whatever practices they like during the course of an agreement—victimise delegates, restructure the workplace to eliminate penalty rates, maintain unsafe work sites—and workers won’t be allowed to strike in their own defence.

There is no mention in Rudd’s policy of any penalty on employers for taking industrial action against workers by locking them out of their jobs or replacing them with underpaid workers. And no matter how just the cause of a strike the boss won’t be paying for it—strike pay is outlawed.

2. No “pattern bargaining”

Rudd says “employees … will not be able to strike in support of an industry-wide agreement.” This means that workers in more weakly organised workplaces who have only gained improvements through industry-wide campaigns will continue as second-class citizens on minimum wages and conditions. Any union that tries to improve the position of workers in such workplaces will be threatened with penalties—like Work Choices. This is a blatant breach of the ALP’s own policy and international labour standards.

3. Restricted unfair dismissal provisions

Rudd’s new policy will reinstate unfair dismissal laws but only after workers serve a lengthy probation—12 months for workers in businesses with 15 employees or less, and six months for workers in larger businesses. As always, ruthless employers will sack workers just before their probation runs out.

4. The unanswered questions

Kevin Rudd’s speech was also silent on other critically important questions for workers and unions. They include:
# How many minimum award conditions? Rudd maintains Kim Beazley’s commitment to abolish AWAs.. of the minimum conditions destroyed by Work Choices or only a slight increase in the number of minimum conditions beyond the current five.
# Will the right to organise be restored? Work Choices is aimed at killing the right of entry of union organisers into workplaces. Will this right of entry for union officials be restored?

Rudd’s speech has betrayed the thousands of unionists and community activists who have campaigned for many months for a Labor victory because of its publicly stated commitment that it would rip up Work Choices and AWAs. That speech confirms just how little Australian workers can trust the promises of politicians from the two major parties.

Just as bad, however, has been the endorsement of the new ALP policy by ACTU president Sharon Burrow and ACTU secretary Greg Combet. Their backing shows that the official ACTU leaders of the “Your Rights at Work” campaign are more committed to Labor’s electoral fortunes than they are to the rights of working people.

Any union organisation worthy of the name would have condemned Kevin Rudd’s proposed industrial relations policy outright.

The ACTU has been running an internet campaign to send emails to Rudd and industrial relations shadow minister Julia Gillard to make a “fair and democratic” IR policy (see ), but this is not enough to counter the pressure of big business for Labor to adopt a Work Choices Mark 2.

By contrast, the Socialist Alliance says that all union officials attending the ALP conference should reject Rudd and Gillard’s industrial relations agenda outright as a continuation of the Howard government’s attacks on our rights at work.

The union movement also needs to respond to Rudd’s provocation by immediately making plans to mobilise for the repeal of the Coalition’s anti-worker laws and the full restoration of workers’ rights.

For its part the Socialist Alliance will fight for the broad union and community alliance that has powered the fight against Work Choices to also reject Rudd and Gillard’s diluted version of the law.

The Socialist Alliance has been a key player, along with active unionists and union leaders, in helping build the protest movement against the Howard government’s laws and in supporting the union-community pickets that have stopped their implementation on many work sites.

The Socialist Alliance will continue to do all it can to continue this vital struggle, in particular helping to strengthen union-community coalitions that are committed to truly defending our rights at work.