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Monday, March 03, 2008

Is the ACTU under pressure?

Work laws

Miss Eagle was forced to ask the question above after reading this. The ACTU is, perhaps, flinching under the fruit of success. It's wonderful Your Rights At Work campaign was central to the Rudd Labor Government's ascent to the reins of power.

We all watched open-mouthed the me-too campaign run by Labor in the lead up to the election. We wondered if this is what really had to happen to come to power and if Rudd would change his public tune when he came to power. Rudd seems set on being a promise-keeper and appears determined not to follow John Howard down the dishonest path of core and non-core promises.

Rudd and Gillard prior to the election were intent on projecting an image that was business-friendly and business wanted what they had got out of Howard. But, as the union movement is set to remind Rud and Gillard, the Your Rights At Work campaign by the ACTU delivered government. People who had never voted Labor before changed their vote. John Howard's Work Choices were, for most people, a bridge too far. Business has to face that fact. After all, they do love the benefits of a democracy governed by the rule of law, don't they?

And why this magic year of 2010 before things can really begin to change - if at all? Rudd had said that this was because business had to make forward plans. But, really, Kevin. A business that does not factor in the "change of government" risk? A business that can't figure out that industrial relations might change with Labor in power?

People are - by year's end - going to want demonstrable workplace change. They really would like it sooner, like right now. But their patience may stretch to year's end. After that, Kevin and Julia, if there is no demonstrable and meaningful change you will be seen as someone who keeps your word - to business but not to ordinary working Australians.

The left unions are restless. The Socialist Alliance - not an organisation brim-full of burgeoning membership - had a State conference here in Melbourne. The Saturday afternoon panel was devoted to the industrial relations scene and the AMWU, Textile, Clothing & Footwear Union, and the CFMEU as well as the Geelong & Region Trades and Labour Council turned up and clearly expressed their points of view.

The contribution of these unions was indicative of what could be a groundswell from the Left. The AMWU with its strong foothold in a declining Victorian manufacturing base clearly wants a return to the previous way of operating including Pattern Bargaining. While the TCFU outlined lucidly the way in which flow-ons have operated in Australia, the AMWU's dream of pattern bargaining is a wish that Miss Eagle predicts will remain unfulfilled. Somewhere, though, between the traditional flow-on practices and the rigidity and targetting of pattern bargaining there could be an opportunity for some new and negotiated thinking.

Traditionally, there have been unions like the AMWU and the Construction Unions who have set the pace. They have used their clout to progress demands and those with less clout - particularly in industries whose workforce is populated by women and the young - have, in time, been able to apply for flow-ons into their own industrial instruments.

However, back in the 1980s the AMWU and the Construction Unions overlooked one very important factor: the service sector. There was a time back then when the service sector was the one area of the economy that displayed marked growth at the same time as manufacturing entered its decline and some areas of construction were in the doldrums.

The AMWU drove through enterprise bargaining. This was a disaster for workers in the service sector such as the retail and hospitality industries. Enterprise bargaining has potential in the tradeable goods area and in construction. The economies of these industries were the meat and milk of the old Industrial Relations Club. The IR Club knew the ins and outs intimately and its people on a first name basis. The service industries were foreign to them - even to the men who ran the trade unions who serviced these industries. No thought had been given to how they operated: their culture, their economic milieu. I'm not sure that this has occurred yet. Draw an AIRC Commissioner into conversation over a coldie and he (very few she-s) would admit his ignorance.

To put it simply, dear Reader, in Enterprise Bargaining one could negotiate efficiencies in this wise:
If the business was making 500 ball bearings per day but efficiencies were negotiated and work practices not currently facilitated by the industrial award were streamlined and 750 ball bearings per day could now be made, then workers could negotiate a share of the increased productivity. Dead easy.

Then you go to the service industries. A check-out operator has no control over the number of customers served; the room attendant has no control over the number of beds made and rooms cleaned; the bar attendant has no control over the number of customers nor beers pulled. And while, in this day and age, it is possible to measure anything. When people do not want to find quantifiable or qualitative data, that data will never be forthcoming - particularly in relation to the work of women. This is why, in the end, Enterprise Bargaining became associated in these industries not with improved productivity but being forced into giving up conditions and working horrible hours without penalty rates. Of course, the more this sort of Enterprise Bargaining became the norm in these industries the fewer people joined trade unions. Mmmmm.....!

So to-day we look at the linked article which seems to be attributed more to Jeff Lawrence (himself from a Left union, the LHMU) than to the Rudd Government. It is interesting that this has come within ten days of the union panel at the Socialist Alliance. Within ten days of the panel at the Socialist Alliance saying that the current position of the ACTU was quite confused; saying that if the ACTU was to mount any sort of campaign it would be months away.

But the revival of the Australian Labour Advisory Council will hardly be a sop to disgruntled unions. This would have been likely to occur anyway. Similarly, union business committees to consult on legislation - as has been advised by Miss E's AWU contacts. This process is always likely under a Labor Government.

What Australian trade unions don't take to kindly is having a Labor government giving business its wish list or giving business an upper hand to the disadvantage of trade unions and, particularly, trade union rights as spelt out in ILO conventions.

And, as you are aware Kevin and Julia, the CFMEU want the abolition of the draconian Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner forthwith.