Feb 16, 2004

Workplace Relations Amendment (Better Bargining) Bill 2003: Second Reading


16 February 2004

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (8.29 p.m.) —It was the Australian Industrial Relations Commission—originally called the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration—which way back in 1907 established the principle of the basic wage. For the first time, the wages of workers were to be determined not only by the marketplace but also by social standards. Workers were no longer to be viewed simply as another commodity in the production process. The creation of the AIRC was also recognition of the unequal bargaining power of employers when compared to that of their workers. That is the basis of our opposition to the government’s so-called better bargaining bill which is before us today.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Better Bargaining) Bill 2003 bill is an attempt to redistribute power from organised labour to employers—power that is already extraordinarily unequal in that individual workers do not have a great deal of options in bargaining their position when compared with the power of the employer who employs them. What historically has occurred as a result of that inequality is that workers have gathered together in trade unions and they have bargained collectively. Part of that bargaining collectively must be the right of workers to withdraw their labour. There must obviously be constraints on that, and one of the constraints is that, where agreements are struck, they should be honoured. It seems to me perverse that those on the other side of the House, who allegedly stress the rights of the individual, essentially argue that individuals should be forced and coerced to work regardless of what changes are occurring in the conditions of that employment.

Since this government came into office, the AIRC and fair bargaining have been constantly under attack from some sections of the business sector but particularly by those opposite, who believe that if the labour market is deregulated, with the wages and conditions of workers determined not according to social standards but by the profitability and needs of the individual workplace, that will be an appropriate outcome. The Howard government has pursued the dismantling of the AIRC with particular zeal. Collective approaches to wage setting have been replaced where possible by individual contracts. After a century of progress, with the development of a labour market, this government essentially believes in winding the clock back and returning Australian workers to the labour market of the 1880s. This bill has as its objective the removal of the remaining bargaining power of working Australians.

There is some suggestion here that somehow workers take industrial action lightly. Of course, when employees withdraw their labour they at the same time are withdrawing their opportunity to get paid. They do it only as a last resort, when there is an impasse in negotiations with their employer and the issues are so significant that they are prepared to sacrifice the wages that they were being paid. That is why industrial action figures are quite low. The government boasts that official figures on industrial action are extremely low. If that is that case, why is it necessary to introduce legislation such as this bill? It is necessary because of the ideological zeal of this government.

I want to go to the impacts that this bill will have. The first thing that it will do is give third parties who might be affected—not definitely be affected but just might be affected—by industrial action the right to intervene and stop that industrial action taking place. Depending upon how you define `third party’, that could be the consumer of a product produced by a particular employer. It could certainly be broad enough to suggest that almost anyone in the community could argue that they would be affected and therefore have a right to apply for that industrial action to not take place. It is not as if the industrial action can take place lightly. There is already a process established whereby there must be an initial bargaining period, with seven days written notice to the employer. Then, if negotiations reach an impasse, the union or employees must give written notice of at least three days of their intention to take industrial action. These restrictions are meant to balance the interests of employers and employees—but that is not enough for this government.

The other thing that this legislation proposes is not to allow any industrial action during the life of an agreement. That is simply designed to override Federal Court decisions which do allow such protected action. This bill will also introduce cooling-off periods—that is, it will give the commission an extraordinary new power to suspend bargaining periods.

All of this power to intervene is aimed, as the previous speaker, the member for Canning, said, at some of the most important workers in our community. The government has been pretty explicit about it. In his speech, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations mentioned, for example, the caring professions such as health, community services and education, as if people in essential services, such as nurses, take industrial action at the drop of a hat. I find it quite offensive that this government continues to attack workers in our health and education systems. We know that the current health minister suggested that rural nurses should be paid less than city nurses whilst he had the position of workplace relations minister. We know that the Prime Minister has specifically targeted for insult and denigration those who teach in public schools. He purported that public schoolteachers, who teach more than 70 per cent of Australia’s children, are somehow out there pushing an ideological case every day trying to indoctrinate students into a particular way of thinking.

That is the nature of the government and how out of touch they are. They are prepared to attack the very people who, because of the work they do, are showing their commitment to the community. There are massive shortages of teachers and nurses. Perhaps there is a link between pay and conditions and the lack of teachers and nurses. I would have thought that the government would have realised that. If you reduce the industrial bargaining power of people in those professions by specifically singling them out and targeting them with legislation, in the long run you will increase the shortages that there are in areas like health, education and child care.

I will give a practical example of this government’s vision of fair bargaining and how it is occurring in practice. Morris McMahon is a company located in Arncliffe, New South Wales, close to my electorate. Australian Manufacturing Workers Union members were on strike from 13 March 2003 for 16 weeks. In some instances, both husband and wife work at Morris McMahon and both were on strike, so they had no money at all coming into their household. Most of the workers have children. Many of the workers live in my electorate and are of non-English-speaking background. There was a 24-hour, seven-day a week picket in place since the beginning of the dispute. The company manufactures cans and employs around 100 workers. The owner of the company also had her own legal firm, Beswick Solicitors, in Clarence Street, Sydney. The company refused to negotiate a certified agreement with the employees and tried to force its workers to sign individual contracts. Until the final days, the company refused to negotiate with the union and, when forced to speak with them, refused to discuss anything other than individual contracts. The company offered striking workers an upfront cash payment of $1,000 to return to work on individual contracts. Think about this: both parents were out on strike on a picket line. They are battlers, people who were being paid less than $12 an hour—and the bleating in the coalition party room over their super entitlements showed the comparisons that they were on about—yet there was systematic intimidation of these employees, with hired security outside the picket line.

I am a member of the Australian Labor Party and I was proud to be on the picket line for two mornings with the workers who were `salt of the earth’ people. They showed great courage. The company threatened to terminate the union delegate’s employment. It sought damages of $700,000 against the AMWU. Workers were being forced to accept a roster of hours that they were not employed to work—five days work instead of four days work per week—the employer would not tell employees about the security of their entitlement and the company bussed in scabs using a professional strike-breaking company.

What did the workers want? They wanted, firstly, an end to six years of unregistered agreements; secondly, respect as workers and decent wages and conditions, as contained in the union agreement; and, thirdly, the right to be represented by their union. They were resolute in their commitment to achieve a collective agreement.

During the dispute Doug Cameron, the National Secretary of the AMWU, had a debate with the then minister, the member for Warringah, Tony Abbott, at Sydney University. Doug challenged the minister to come and talk to the workers. This is a minister who spoke all about choice—`We are all about choice and giving workers the right to choose.’ He went to that workplace and had to acknowledge that what they wanted was their right to bargain collectively. Yet they were not able to do so because of this government’s legislation.

The Hon. Justice Munro of the AIRC told the commission that he no longer had the power to assist in the resolution of the dispute but wished that he did. He said that the employer did not bargain in good faith. Eventually the matter was resolved and the employees went back to work. There are no individual contracts, the workers have a registered agreement and the union has been recognised. The employer won the worst boss for 2003 award from the New South Wales Labor Council. That dispute should not have occurred; there should have been proper and fair bargaining. That is not what this government is about. It is about taking away the rights of workers and handing all power to employers. That is why the Labor Party rejects the government’s industrial relations approach. We do not back away from our connections with the trade union movement. I have been a proud trade union member all my working life and will continue to be.