The final piece of Labor’s new industrial relations regime has been unveiled by Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard. The new legislation was hailed by Gillard and most of the media as bringing the end of WorkChoices.
Even the ACTU spoke about it glowing terms. President Sharon Burrow described the legislation as “a historic turning point in restoring workers’ rights”, while the week before the legislation was released Secretary Jeff Lawrence wrote in The Australian, “The Government’s new industrial relations proposals are definitely not WorkChoices-lite.”
But while the laws are an improvement on WorkChoices, they go nowhere near scrapping it.
The anti-union laws introduced by WorkChoices that remain are significant. They include requirements for secret ballots before industrial action and increased penalties for unprotected industrial action, including the mandatory docking of four hours pay for any unprotected stopwork meeting.
The ban on pattern bargaining across an industry and the special police powers in the construction industry that underpin the Australian Building and Construction Commission will also remain.
The ACTU is enthusiastic that union right of entry provisions and access to arbitration are better than the government’s original proposals.
Unions will have a slightly expanded right to enter workplaces and will be able to inspect a wider range of documents.
But the bulk of Howard’s restrictions on right of entry remain, including the WorkChoices rules requiring a permit to visit workplaces and giving 24 hours notice of any visit.
ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence has claimed the new provisions will ensure recalcitrant employers like Telstra and Cochlear, who have refused to negotiate with unions and are trying to force non-union agreements on their workers, could be brought to heel.
But the government has made it clear that its new “good faith bargaining” requirement only means employers will be forced to enter into discussions with unions, not to actually sign onto an agreement.
It is only where employers persistently refuse to even bargain, or in the case of low paid workers who have been given a special exemption, that arbitration will be available.
But ordinarily, without taking industrial action, there is nothing to force employers to make concessions.
Unless unions are prepared to challenge the heavy-handed restrictions on industrial action which Labor has retained, our rights are work are not going to be significantly improved.
By James Supple