AUSTRALIA’S unions estimate that over half a million people joined rallies across the country on 15 November to protest at the Howard government’s anti-union laws. There were 210,000 in Melbourne, 45,000 people in Sydney, and 25,000 in Brisbane. Right from the start, however, the leaders of the Australian Council of Trade Unions have signalled that they do not think it possible to stop the legislation, only to build up popular dislike for it.
From the Perth demonstration, Kat Pinder reports: “The march was lively and had a good impact. But before that we had the same old union bureaucrat speakers that everyone's heard before, no workers or union activists. People looked quite bored and unenthusiastic.
“Also these rallies have very exclusive organising committees. Few union members could get involved in the organisation”.
Some unions are more up for a fight than others, and the rallies show that the base is there for a real campaign. Its best point of leverage would be organised union pressure to force Australia’s eight state and territory governments - all Labor - to refuse to cooperate with the legislation.
The state governments have already said that they will go to the High Court to try to prove the legislation unconstitutional, and some state governments, for a while, refused to comply with central government measures accompanying the legislation, such as one which compelled the states to offer individual contracts (AWAs) to their employees in TAFE (further education) colleges.
A concerted union campaign to force concerted non-cooperation could wreck the legislation, and vastly strengthen industrial resistance when the government and employers try to use the legislation to penalise strikers.
The legislation is more drastic than anything Margaret Thatcher attempted in Britain in a single step. Its long-term aim is to shift Australian labour from the century-old "award" system (collective agreements negotiated by unions but ratified by courts and having legal force) to individual contracts.
The legislation makes it legal for employers to evade most "award" conditions by offering individual contracts. The only legal limitation on those individual contracts will be that they pay at least the minimum wage (currently $12.75 an hour) and include eight days' sick leave per year, four weeks' annual leave, unpaid parental leave, and "award" working hours. Employers can "buy out" all other conditions individual-by-individual.
Strikes will be illegal without the workers first being balloted by the Electoral Commission.
The right of union organisers to enter workplaces - one of the most important legal strong points that Australian unions still have - will be drastically curtailed.
"Pattern bargaining" - in which a union wins the effect of an industry or sector-wide agreement without the formality by winning deals with all the employers based on a common "pattern" - will be illegal.
The powers of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission will be drastically cut. Its power to determine the minimum wage will be transferred to a new commission more controlled by the government. The federal government cannot directly abolish or disempower the state Industrial Relations Commissions, but is explicit that longer-term it wishes to see them fade away.
All unfair dismissal protection will be removed for workers employed in companies with less than 100 employees. (That is, the majority; and it will not be too hard for bigger companies, if they wish it, to divide up their operations so that all their workers appear to be in a unit of less than 100 employees).