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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Not much of a true believer by Dean Mighell


It's ironic that Kevin Rudd comes from Queensland, the state where the Australian Labor Party was founded in the 1890s by striking unionists under the sacred Tree of Knowledge.In 2008, it's symbolic that the Tree of Knowledge is now dead. This irony must not be lost on Australian workers when they look at our industrial relations laws.

At the last federal election, outside any major party, the Australian trade union movement conducted the best-resourced and most sophisticated political campaign in our nation's history. The Your Rights at Work campaign was fundamentally responsible for creating awareness of the Howard government's unjust industrial laws and ultimately the removal of the Coalition government. Many Australian workers suffered under Work Choices, and they voted to get rid of it; all of it. They believed Rudd when he said he would "rip up Work Choices".

I saw this as political spin and viewed it with caution. It's easy to say what governments will get rid of, it's another thing to replace it with something of substance. Since the election, Rudd and Julia Gillard have really done nothing more than re-decorate the Work Choices bus. It has a fresh coat of paint and new tyres, but it's still essentially the same vehicle John Howard drove. Howard used Work Choices to force down workers' conditions and to restrain unions from looking after their members' interests. Sure, AWAs may have changed but individual contracts remain, albeit with a better safety net. Unfair bargaining laws are entirely intact and building-industry workers are still subjected to laws that fail the most basic of human rights and International Labour Organisation conventions, to which Australia is a signatory.

Remember the political witch-hunt that was the Cole royal commission into the building industry? Despite no criminal conduct from unions, we ended up with the Australian Building and Construction Commission. This political police force against construction workers was put in place for Howard's multi-millionaire property developer and builder mates, and Rudd and Gillard retain it. I don't believe Rudd understands unions or workers or the coercive powers of the ABCC's taskforce which include compelling witnesses to give evidence under threat of jail and leaving building workers with less rights than drug dealers or armed robbers charged with serious crimes.

Rudd a true believer? I think not. Yet six months after the election, unions and workers rightly ask if the YRAW campaign was truly effective, or is there still a long way to go? Workers perceive bad laws under a Howard government as bad laws under the Rudd Government. Rudd has retained 95 per cent of Work Choices which makes the laws Rudd's, not Howard's, so let's get serious here. Was the YRAW campaign about getting rid of the Howard government or ensuring that laws consistent with our international obligations are restored to protect workers? Having rallied many workers and community people in support of the YRAW campaign, the union movement itself has a responsibility to genuinely fight bad laws regardless of who governs.

There is no doubt that we and the YRAW campaign suffered with the defection of ACTU secretary Greg Combet. Rudd recruited our team captain and left us silent and compromised when he and Gillard backflipped on promises to Australian workers and their unions. The union movement was so committed to the removal of the Howard government that it was paralysed in terms of fighting Labor for a better deal on industrial relations, and Rudd knew it. More than a year ago, Rudd and Gillard put forward their industrial-relations policy at the ALP national conference. Many unionists agreed to play a "team game" and reluctantly supported their policy. Backroom discussions took place and promises to unions were made to avoid a fight on the conference floor.

It was poor policy from a worker's point of view, but better than Work Choices and there was always the hope of convincing Labor in government of a better deal. Right? In election mode, there were many "on the run" policy changes from the government-in-waiting. Employer associations were overjoyed with the Gillard/Rudd promise to retain laws that cripple unions' bargaining rights to get a better deal for their members. And the illegitimate child of the process that was the building industry royal commission, the Australian Building Industry Taskforce, has been fully preserved along with its coercive powers.

Let's not kid ourselves, Work Choices survives and there seems little planned legislation to change it. How will the Australian union movement respond? Gone are the days of Paul Keating or Bob Hawke when the ACTU had great influence, which resulted in important social change. Industry productivity went up, superannuation was introduced and industry reform was paramount. The ACTU is now treated like a second-rate lobby group and is either pointedly ignored or, worse, deliberately opposed for the sake of a populist agenda.

The Australian Industry Group and business lobbyists appear to have more influence on the Government than the ACTU. It can't be long before Gillard formally names AIG chief Heather Ridout as minister for industrial relations. In many respects unions must accept responsibility for their lack of influence over the ALP: we have the numbers but don't use them. It may also be argued that too many union leaders are compromised by their political aspirations, and sitting Labor MPs supported by unions find it hard to stand up to the popular Rudd. His popularity will pass, and Labor MPs must be held accountable for their voting in caucus.

The bottom line is that unions should only support a political party if it's in the interests of their members to do so. The unique relationship between unions and Labor must be questioned in the interests of members if it compromises our ability to get a better deal for workers. Rudd won the election on the back of Australian workers, not employer associations. With our members' support and effective leadership, unions can again become the most powerful political lobby group in this country.

With more than two million members, resources and a commitment to working people, we are far from a spent force. Let's be brave and committed enough to say to the ALP: we will not mobilise for you or donate a cent if you ignore ILO conventions. Unions don't want unfettered rights to run amok; however, we do demand a fair go. It's hardly a radical initiative. It's time for the union movement to put its members' interests first and to stop waiting for someone to save us.

Dean Mighell is the Victorian state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union.

from the The Australian, June 05, 2008

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