Kevin Rudd has sent big business the message that the government wants to leave most of WorkChoices intact. Now a push is on by some of the country’s biggest companies to get around even Labor’s paltry changes and continue using WorkChoices-style arrangements in an effort to hold down wages.

Companies including Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Xstrata and Telstra have moved to exclude unions from wage negotiations in an effort to maintain AWA wages and conditions.

In May Telstra walked out of negotiations with unions on a new collective agreement, and is pursuing a non-union agreement designed to cut wages growth.

The company has a strategy of driving unions out of the workplace in order to save $50 million a year on wages, according to internal Telstra documents seen by the Sydney Morning Herald. The company aims to limit future pay increases to just 3 per cent a year—well below inflation.

It will target areas of its 32,000-strong workforce with low unionisation rates to sign non-union agreements.

Mining companies Rio Tinto, BHP and Xstrata are also trying to use non-union agreements to “replicate the pay and terms of AWAs” according to the Financial Review. Other companies like Cochlear are using a similar approach.

If major employers like Telstra and BHP get away with this, others will follow suit.

Even in the heavily unionised construction industry, the Master Builders Association in Victoria has encouraged employers to offer non-union agreements, in the hope of getting around a new enterprise agreement recently finalised by the construction union with major building companies.

In a separate move, Telstra is considering ways to maintain existing AWAs indefinitely, by having workers remain on expired agreements and continue receiving annual pay rises.

The company is the biggest single user of AWAs, with about 21,000 staff on individual contracts.

Labor’s WorkChoices-lite

These moves show how timid Labor’s attempts to ban AWAs and repeal WorkChoices have been.

Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard responded by lecturing Telstra that “I don’t think it’s in Telstra’s interests to be seen to be the company that is still trying to implement WorkChoices.”

Yet she has admitted that Labor will continue to allow companies to use non-union agreements.

The government has promised absolutely no action to stop Telstra or any other company side-stepping its changes and continuing with AWA-style arrangements.

When Labor was elected on the back of a wave of revulsion against WorkChoices, there were high hopes among many people that rights at work would improve.

But Labor’s IR laws remain heavily slanted towards business, and leave most of WorkChoices intact. The new government has been at pains to agree to business demands to soften their changes further.

When the government’s new minimum employment standards were released Australian Industry Group chief Heather Ridout told how Labor had given into business concerns—from their point of view the standards had “improved through the consultation process and appear to be workable”.

So it’s not surprising that companies like Telstra have drawn the conclusion that they can, in effect, continue to use WorkChoices to slash wages and get away with it.

With inflation predicted to hit 5 per cent this year and the economy slowing significantly in the quarter to June, growing just 0.3 per cent, business will be looking to make working class people pay to maintain their profits.

In November last year, Telstra call centre workers voted down a non-union agreement that the company tried to introduce to lock in WorkChoices conditions. Unions had campaigned against the deal, showing it up as a plan to cut hard-won conditions.

This shows the push for non-union agreements can be beaten. But winning collective agreements and pay rises to keep up with inflation will need a more serious union fightback—backed up by serious strike action.

By James Supple

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