Bring back WorkChoices? It is still with us
John Howard has been calling for a return to individual employment contracts, a key component of his rotten WorkChoices industrial relations laws.
You remember John Howard. He was the man who lost not only the 2007 election to the ALP; he also lost his seat.
Why? Because workers hated his industrial relations regime; not just individual employment contracts but every damn thing about it.
The restrictions on strikes; the power it gave to the bosses over sackings; the control it gave to the employers over almost every detail of your working life (including in some cases when you could go to the toilet); the attacks on penalty pay, minimum pay amounts, youth wages.
It was a classic example fo neoliberalism in practice – a grand house of laws to undermine unions and workplace rights to put the bosses in control.
That doesn’t always mean wage cuts. In times of high demand for particular workers wages can be bid up. That is what has happened in the mining industry.
But let’s look a little bit into the figures. Sure wages in the resource sector are high. But the profit those workers create is huge.
According to that well known Marxist organisation the Australian Bureau of Statistics, mining workers (managers as well as those who do the work) earn on average almost $120,000 per annum. The value they create is over $600,000 per worker. That value, more than double the value of the next top industry, goes to the bosses.
Gina Rinehart is the world’s richest woman because of these workers. By way of comparison, she receives (earns is just not the right word) more in day than her workers do in a year. In fact by the time she has had lunch on her first Monday she has purloined what her workers earn for the 230 days or more they go to work during the year.
Remember Howard’s ‘Golden Era’ (Abbott’s words) under WorkChoices? Remember when the Cowra abattoir sacked 29 workers to rehire 20 on lower wages? When Spotlight offered individual contracts that removed overtime, penalty rates and loadings for public holidays, shifts, leave, rest breaks and bonuses for an extra two cents an hour?
When employment became even more precarious than in the past.
Under Howard’s laws the individual worker and the big boss were put on a par with the aim of removing unions from the bargaining process. The one thing that gives workers strength is their collective power. Moving to individual contracts puts the bosses in total control.
By abolishing unfair dismissals in workplaces with up to 100 employees Howard gave small business the power to sack workers for any reason. More power to the boss.
The bosses used the threat of the sack and the power to negotiate one on one to impose a reign of terror in the workplace.
The unions ran a big campaign to vote Labor. We did in 2007. The ALP betrayed us. It got rid of Howard’s hated WorkChoices and replaced it with Fair Work Australia which has fairly been described as WorkChoices Lite.
An important part of industrial relations laws, enshrined since 1993 under Labor Party saint Paul Keating, is restrictions on the right to strike. These restrictions are enshrined in the Labor Party’s Fair Work laws. They are its cornerstone. These limitations mean workers can only strike during bargaining periods when an enterprise agreement is up for renegotiation.
This is the key. It means workers can’t take industrial action to enforce the agreement; to enforce safety; to protect sacked workers.
It is this massive restriction on the right to strike which flavours the rest of the industrial relations debate.
It gives credence to the idea that the bosses are in charge and strikes should only occur over a few workplace items in agreements during a window of opportunity of a few months (if you go through the bureaucratic process correctly) every 3 or 4 years.
It is this which reinforces the power that flows to the bosses from owning the means of production, and colours every debate and discussion about industrial relations.
A blanket right to strike of course doesn’t mean that workers will strike every second day. It does mean they on paper have the power to fight back against the power of the boss. Whether they do or not is a question of consciousness and fighting spirit.
But without that capacity, workers are often fearful of fines or jail if they do strike ‘illegally’. This is as true of Gillard’s industrial relations laws as it was of Howard’s.
So Labor’s Fair Work laws give the impression of removing WorkChoices when in fact they keep its essence.
This means Labor has kept all the old thinking about the right of managers to manage, of the need to increase productivity – we work harder, they profit – of the ‘right’ to sack workers for any reason, of the ‘right’ to cut wages and conditions, of the ‘right’ to cut safety standards.
John Howard has now sounded the battle horn for business calling for the reintroduction of individual contracts and the right to sack people willy nilly. This is not because Howard is some extreme ideological crank. His WorkChoices expressed the interests of the ruling class at the time to further their control over workers and increase their profits.
WorkChoices had almost unanimous support from business groups for precisely that reason.
However the backlash and the union bureaucrats’ talk shop vote Labor campaign with demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of workers against Howard’s rotten laws saw the bourgeoisie forced to accept some changes.
The beauty of Labor for the boss is that it can, and in the case of replacing WorkChoices with Fair Work, did, give the bosses more or less what they want while convincing workers things are much better than they are.
However this sleight of hand weakens the union movement and gives credence to those who call for more and more power to the bosses.
Of course, given the rejection of WorkChoices in 2007 and the fear it still engenders, Tony Abbott cannot come out publicly in support of a return to this industrial relations ‘Golden Age’. So he hides behind weasel words about limiting union control and militancy – militancy when strike days are at historic lows! – and restoring industrial relations ‘balance’.
This is code for giving even more power to the bosses.
This is not a reason for defending Labor’s WorkChoices Lite. The alternative is to take industrial action to defend and extend jobs, wages and conditions.
Right now, for example, building workers and their union, the CFMEU, are fighting a particularly nasty boss, Grocon, for the right to appoint union representatives on their sites.
The action is supposedly ‘illegal’, not under John Howard’s laws but Julia Gillard’s.
This is a key fight for the future of industrial relations in Australia. No to a return to WorkChoices. No to Fair Work which is WorkChoices Lite. Yes to the right to strike. Victory to the CFMEU against Grocon.
For more information about the Grocon fight, read CFMEU defies law to take on Grocon.