The Morrison government withdrew most of the remaining provisions of its industrial relations “Omnibus Bill” when cross-bench Senators’ amendments gutted the bill of its main intentions – to increase employer flexibility in offering hours of work, and to allow employer designed Enterprise Agreements to be imposed without union and worker approval, in certain contexts. The sop to get this through was to be a law against wage theft (i.e. employer failure to pay the full award or agreement rates), and a “pathway” for casual workers to become permanent, if their boss doesn’t circumvent. The bill was more open to disruption because at the time of the vote the responsible Minister, Christian Porter, was on mental health leave on account of rape allegations against him.
What remained and got through the Senate was a redefinition of casual work to undercut a recent court judgment in favour of causal workers, and a faster track, but unenforceable, casual pathway to permanence.
Unionists had deluged the cross-bench Senators with emails and phone calls under the banner of the ACTU social media campaign “You can’t heal the economy by hurting workers. ” Sally McManus’s reaction to the passing of what remained of the omnibus bill was two-sided. On the one hand she claims a victory in stopping “devastating changes”. On the other hand, “casual work remains insecure and uncertain, with no viable path to ongoing work and no ability for workers to enforce their rights.” The wage theft penalties had gone.
Conservative governments and employer groups have been bogged down since 2007, in their efforts to further erode union rights to bargain and take industrial action over wages and conditions. PM Howard’s WorkChoices legislation of 2005 reduced workers’ right to challenge being sacked, expanded individual work contracts and made it more difficult for union officers to enter worksites. Unions mobilised Your Rights@Work, the most effective national campaign of the last 20 years, with street protests and rallies, that won Labor the 2007 election. Labor softened some of the provisions of WorkChoices, with its Fair Work Act (labelled WorkChoices lite by many on the left). But there has been cat and mouse play between conservative governments and the union movement since then. Bit by bit workers’ rights are being eroded.
Union resistance in recent times predominantly takes four forms. One is electioneering against the Coalition under a slogan or campaign heading, such as Change the Rules (2019), or Build A Better Future (2016), and hoping that if and when Labor comes to government, it will resist employer opposition – which Labor pretty much avoided doing in 2007-2013. Another is to try to prevent specific legislation by social media led lobbying of politicians, as for this Omnibus Bill. Thirdly, specific cases, and specific employers or industries are taken on, usually through a combination of a legal or regulatory campaign and some protests. For example, there are new NSW guidelines to improve safety for food delivery riders followed 5 recent rider deaths. Lastly, there is some, but diminishing enterprise bargaining, with agreements covering around 10% of private sector workers.
Killing that Bill and Changing the Rules are important to protecting workers right to organise. But the right to organise is secured by workers actually organising against employers to bargain, to hold out for their demands. Organising needs to be restored as a credible means for workers to achieve their desires for secure, living incomes. That can’t be done within the legal framework, and the law won’t be changed without workers organising to break out of its limits. This is a Catch-22 that can’t be resolved until there is a will in the union movement to educate and engage workers, waged and unwaged, more and less secure, to learn about this problem, and discuss and decide on ways to work together to break out of the vice. We need union leaders who will be upfront that this is the direction unions need to take to win minimum wage and award increases. That will get many more workers behind efforts to also defend the existence of unions.