No Choices: Australia's Unions Confront Labor Law "Reform"

Article excerpt

ON MARCH 27, Australia's new labor law, known as Work Choices, went into effect.

On March 31, Rhonda Walke, a medical receptionist in Sydney with more than 20 years employment at a small doctor's office, was fired. Her offense: seeking to negotiate the terms of a new contract her employer sought to impose. Under Australia's old labor rules, Walke would have been able to win reinstatement. Under Work Choices, because the doctor's office employs fewer than 100 workers, she is out of luck--unfair dismissal provisions don't apply.

"I had a job where I could walk to work and I wanted to talk to them about what the new terms would mean." Walke told Workers Online, the official publication of Unions NSW, the labor council of the Australian state of New South Wales.

"I wanted to talk to the employer but I didn't even get the opportunity. I was given the new conditions on Wednesday and, about 12:15 today (Thursday), I was sacked by the office manager.

"I feel I have been unfairly dismissed, because I have done nothing wrong. Why should all my conditions change, after 20 years, without any discussion?"

Passed through Parliament on December 2, 2005 and proclaimed as law on March 27, Work Choices is an amendment to the Workplace Relations Act (WRA), a package of industrial "reforms" passed by the Australian federal Liberal-National (conservative) Coalition government in 1996. Like Work Choices, that original package aimed at restricting workers' rights and weakening the power of unions. It is part of the ongoing effort by Australian governments--Labor and Liberal--over the last 25 years, to increase profitability by lowering the cost of labor.

During its campaign for re-election in November 2004, the Coalition government failed to divulge its plans for a second-wave of industrial relations legislation. It fought the campaign mainly on the promise of keeping interest rates low, mixed with an emphasis on its support for the U.S.-led "war on terror." It was only after the election, in which the Coalition received the unexpected windfall of control of both houses of Parliament--meaning that it could pass any legislation unamended--that it began to talk up the need for further industrial reform.

A HISTORY OF "REFORM"

Work Choices has delivered to big business much of e labor "flexibility" that it has sought for the last 10 years of Coalition government. In early 1996, prior to the election of the government of Prime Minister John Howard, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) helped draft the Coalition's industrial relations policy document, Better Pay for Better Work. This policy document, which argued for the elimination of unfair dismissal laws, the implementation of individual contracts and the scrapping of the Australian system of regulating conditions of work, was implemented in part in the passing of the Workplace Relations Act.

Before 1996, Australia relied heavily on a system of industrial "awards," where the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) established minimum conditions for specific industries on a range of wage and work rule issues. The 1996 Workplace Relations Act stripped back allowable matters in industrial awards to 20. It reestablished the fight of employers to sue unions for damages relating to solidarity actions ("secondary boycotts"), and restricted the fight of union officials to enter workplaces. It also introduced Australian Workplace Agreements--individual contracts that could override industrial awards or company-wide collective bargaining agreements. The only stipulation was that the AWAs were required to satisfy a "no general disadvantage test," whereby a worker who signed an agreement would not be made worse off overall than if still covered by the award. The WRA also introduced a range of fines that could be levied on unions that defied AIRC orders.

In their submission to a Senate inquiry into the implementation of the WRA held in May 1996, the ACCI gave a glowing endorsement to the bill, calling it "another step towards the sort of employment laws that ACCI has been arguing for. …