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Workchoices – “dead, buried, cremated”? No Way!

By Don Sutherland, October 13, 2013 ©

The Workchoices Mark 2 Strategy is now forming

Australia’s employers and their organisations are determined that the new Abbott government move sooner not later to give them as close as absolute control of the employment contract and of each worker’s working day as they can get. Straight after Australia’s September Federal election the new Abbott Liberal-National Party government declared that Australia was now “open for business”. This government came about because of big business and it exists to serve the needs of business: especially those employers that are the most powerful. This is not to suggest that the Labor governments were not pro-business, but that’s’ another discussion. The week before last (October 9) the Australian Financial Review (AFR) co-hosted with JP Morgan and Chanticleer a business lunch (tax deductible / avoidable?) that enabled three very prominent and senior business leaders to discuss big business’ agenda for their new Abbott government. They were “eminent director David Crawford”, chairman of Lend Lease and a director of BHP, Heather Ridout, former head of the Australian Industry Group (AiG), and “Asciano chairman and BHP-Billiton director Malcolm Broomhead”. The discussion was then run next day as front page news in the Australian Financial Review (AFR). The AFR quotes Broomhead: “We have gone from a banana republic-type analogy to a more southern European type analogy. We now have an inflexible workforce, a high-cost workforce, an ageing population and a welfare mentality we just can’t afford.” (Comparing Australia to a southern European type economy. Seriously. Make of that what you will.)

The chief priority of this exclusive coverage was to promote restoration of Workchoices style laws similar in general and same in intent to those established by the earlier Liberal- National Coalition government, back in 2004. Crawford’s call on Abbott to act soon and not later was linked to the broader “business community”, and specifically the Ai Group’s survey that “found that CEO’s believed that IR reform was the number one priority for the next term of government.”

However, to introduce such laws would mean that Abbott must break a very serious promise to the Australian people that he would not do so.

What is now unfolding is a scheme that would enable the Abbott government to break this direct, repeated promise made in Abbott’s long election campaign and, to minimise the fallout damage that would follow. By last Saturday the AFR reported that both Abbott and Hockey (The Treasurer) had confirmed they wanted “broader change” to Labor’s Fair Work Act like that being put forward by business, but “they are hamstrung by political promises they made before the federal election”, while Abbott was lamenting that “to change the system would be a breach of faith with voters.” Fancy that.

Abbott’s promised “Productivity Commission” review of the Fair Work Act will go ahead (as if that is good news for working people) and then any changes would be presented in the lead up to the 2016 election.

Business will continue to hammer away for a faster rate of change and every opportunity will be found and worked through with the government to make that happen. After all, the government wants to do it.

Why is this big business scheme necessary?

There are 2 main reasons.  First, has to do with Abbott’s own public caution. The depth of public opposition to Workchoices from about late 2004 through to 2007 was so strong that a social movement formed that made it possible for Labor to defeat the Howard government, including PM Howard in his own seat. Remember, after the 2004 election that Howard won, many concluded that he could not be defeated, including in the union movement itself. The “Your Rights @ Work” campaign, as the anti Workchoices campaign became known, did not originate as an ACTU, union leaders’ strategy. Rather it emerged out of the willingness in the middle and membership levels of some unions to find a way to fight back, especially in community-union solidarity groups. It is true that the ACTU did hook onto and embrace the local initiatives and draw them into a national, strongly resourced campaign strategy. Extra parliamentary political activity by masses of people was the key, although this changed after Labor’s election.

When the Abbott government makes its move to create Workchoices Mark 2 (or, “Workchoices by another name”) it is essential for success that there is least scope for such opposition to emerge and if it does so, it is fragmented, marginalised and expressed by union officials, above all not by workers themselves.

Second, the introduction of “Workchoices 2” requires that Abbott does break his clear promise: that he would not change Australia’s industrial relations laws so that Workchoices would be brought back. Workchoices was “dead, cremated, buried.”

The purpose of Abbott’s promise was to prevent Workchoices (strengthened, harsher rights for employers at work against their workers) from becoming an election issue.

To break this promise is every bit as serious as the foundation of Abbott’s long campaign against the Labor government, his attack on PM Gillard’s alleged breach of her serious “promise” in the 2010 election campaign not to introduce a carbon tax. Abbott’s campaign spooked a naïve and flaccid Labor government leadership and allowed Abbott to undermine the credibility of the Gillard government in the broader population – that Gillard and her government were dishonest and calculatingly so.

That is the last thing that Abbott wants for the Workchoices Mark 2 project. Abbott’s allies in the employer organisations and the mainstream media, acting as champions and cheer leaders of employers as a class, are working out a way for Abbott to give them what they want in workplace and industry law and not suffer the loss of credibility that they inflicted on Gillard and Rudd Labor from 2010 – 2013. They are giving a lot of thought to strategy.

Big Business’ Key Code Words: Productivity and other “weasel words”

The introduction of Workchoices 2 will be very bad for working people. Therefore, there are key code words that deflect from the fundamental purpose of the employers’ campaign. They are “productivity”, “flexibility”, “competitiveness” and the newly emerging “cost structure”.

The laws these groups are looking for would re-establish, in the name of “productivity”, “flexibility”, “competitiveness”, the power of employers to pursue individual bargaining instead of inside of collective bargaining, especially collective bargaining in which union membership and representation is diminished or removed. They want as close as absolute control of the employment contract and working day as they can get.

This language is coded because the primary and dominant reason for existence for all employers, no matter their size and reach is profits and profitability.

However, “profits and profitability” are rarely mentioned in the “business messaging” that dominates mainstream media: for some reason the champions of business are very coy about discussing their fundamental motive in public.

We are invited to put aside that business’ reason for existence is profit-making, and that continued profit-making is dependent upon the exploitation of the workforce during their days at work, and then reinforced by pro-business taxation changes, the removal of environmental regulations that get in the way of profiteering, and so on.

Thus, the new laws would maintain and strengthen the capacity of employers, already accepted in Labor’s Fair Work Act, to breach negotiated and approved collective agreements. This is now facilitated through the Fair Work Act’s penal powers of the 21st century that make any industrial action by workers outside of the enterprise bargaining process “unprotected industrial action”.

A whole generation of younger workers, in the formative years of their working lives, facing a future of precarious work, will be constrained from learning about collective strength, solidarity behaviour and how it can be applied against the expectations, demands and formidable powers of employers to control their lives.

The employer strategy is forming. They do not wish to wait for the new Senate that starts in the middle of 2014.

Workers’ Counter Power: A New “Your Rights at Work” Type Campaign?

This is a class war in which there is a defining, central, battle of ideas, especially whether the majority will consent to or be comfortable with the powers of employers to exercise greater control over the lives of workers, starting at work. Or, on the other hand, ideas that enable the majority to challenge the logic of profit making for private gain as the primary and dominant reason for economic activity.

This battle must include the restoration of profits and profitability in union discussions, bargaining activity, dispute handling, and union education.

On the workers’ side there is, at the moment, a vacuum, as though we are locked into waiting for something more definite to unfold. So far there is no visible sign that union leaders are engaging in a discussion that might develop a social movement, how to re-build that put to sleep in 2008. There might be a discussion going on behind the scenes. It seems as though the preferred focus has been on Labor’s leadership ballot. The absence of leadership does not necessarily mean that it should not or will not happen. What is most needed very soon is the development of a strategy for the labour movement that learns how to defy the big business agenda and its Abbott government, and to build an alternative for the majority of Australians. That strategy is best developed from the bottom up, preferably with open-minded union leaders going to their members to discuss ideas for both strategy and policy.

This should include intensified, constant, systematic worker education programs around economics and its inter-connections with politics. There is a working class economics for the twenty-first century that can strengthen the confidence of workers in pursuing their battles and building their solidarity.

We do not have to be dominated by what passes as “objective” and “expert” economic commentary in the mainstream media. We can grapple with and understand that the connection between “productivity” and profitability is the extra exploitation of workers, and that is wrong.

A strategy that entertains engagement and cooperation with the government and with big business would signal defeat. The strategy should defend what there is that is positive from the recent years but not be bogged in it either. It should build upwards from the “campaign” against precarious work that shows much promise and link simultaneously to a greening of the economy against climate change. “Open for business” means that there will be all sorts of mergers and acquisitions, relocations of capital, that will make job security thinner for thousands of workers.

The union movement’s relationship with the ALP must continue to be scrutinised, critically analysed for its limitations and its possibilities and how they interact. More independence is what most workers are looking for but, clearer independence from the ALP can still mean support when it is on the right track. It is just likely that kind of support, from a more independent stance, will be more effective any way.

Defiance is also really necessary but should not be mindless: it needs encouragement and cultivation over time and, in such form, can help to re-grow the union movement. There is a direct relationship between union membership losses and the denial of workers’ rights to industrial action after an enterprise agreement has been negotiated. Taking “unprotected industrial action” is very serious but is an act of defiance against an anti-worker law. It must be entered into carefully and thoughtfully, with as much planning as possible. But prior planning will not always be possible.

Above all, the strategy must take the union movement, and its latent potential in at least half of those who are not members, away from fragmented industrial and social actions to whole of movement mobilisation. We have done this before when it has been really necessary, it is necessary again, and we can do it again.

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