Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Workchoices - Characterisation, Effects and Resistance: An AMWU Perspective

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Workchoices - Characterisation, Effects and Resistance: An AMWU Perspective

Article excerpt

This article seeks to explore how the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) represented the Howard Government's 'WorkChoices' legislation in its official journal, AMWU News. Applying Kelly's (2008) study of industrial relations 'frames,' this paper seeks to explore the AMWU's characterisation of the legislation, the modalities of resistance it encouraged, and the level and nature of support given to the Australian Labor Party (ALP). It is argued that a consistent, total but untheorised vision of the negative impacts and key players of the WorkChoices legislation is forwarded, along with a campaign of resistance that is largely oriented to the political arena. When viewed as part of a broader timeline, both positions represent a marked departure from a historic tradition of critical political economy and industrial mobilisation, and are intimately tied to the political and economic transformations of Australian neo-liberalism.

In 2005, the ruling Liberal Party/National Party Coalition introduced the highly controversial 'WorkChoices' legislation, which radically recast Australian industrial regulation. The trade union crusade against WorkChoices was a key factor in the removal of this government from office in 2007 (Brett 2007; Woodward 2010). Conducted under the auspices of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the 'Your Rights At Work' campaign simultaneously focused public opposition to WorkChoices and '... placed unions once again at the forefront of public consciousness' (Bramble 2008: 235-236). The movement's success, sheer size and its centralised ACTU leadership easily leads to the conclusion that the campaign was monolithic. Focusing on the image of unity projected by the union movement therefore runs the risk of being blinded to the different, perhaps competing, visions of WorkChoices held by various unions. This tension between the general and the particular representations of WorkChoices is one which has not been adequately mapped and explored. Whilst a general account of the trade union response to WorkChoices is well-sketched (see, for example, Bramble 2008: Wilson and Spies-Butcher 2011), the perspectives of individual unions are poorly understood. If leftunchartered, we face real difficulties in understanding the obstacles and opportunities presented to efforts at building union solidarity, particularly insofar as these take legislative form. Given the election of a Coalition government in September 2013, along with strong indications that industrial relations reform is on their agenda (Wyborn and Vautin 2014), these questions of union solidarity and cooperation, key dynamics in the struggle against the neoliberal disempowerment of workers and resulting social inequality, will be particularly pressing in the coming months. It is thus an apposite time to explore the characterisation and representation of WorkChoices from the perspective of a union we can expect to be in the vanguard of opposition to a conservative industrial relations agenda; the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).

The AMWU came into complete being in 1995 after a long series of union amalgamations. Many of its historical component parts, such as the Amalgamated Metal Workers and the Food Preservers' Union, were firmly located in the left-wing of the union movement (Bramble 2008). Today, the union is still considered left-wing, most notably in its Victorian branch, with a fairly militant industrial record and a generally progressive stance on a range of issues. The contours of the left-right political spectrum are malleable through time and space, but for the purposes of this paper, Knapp and Wright's (2006: 6) definition of the distinction between leftand right is adopted:

The politics of class is the single most important factor dividing Leftfrom Right...with the former seeking social justice through redistributive social and economic intervention by the state, and the latter committed to defending capitalism and private property (and, it would argue, prosperity) against the threats thus posed. …

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