Changes the Rules - before and after the election

"The union movement will grow again as it struggles for these changes and at the same time pursues strong industrial campaigns that demonstrate the logic and importance of “changing the rules” and to defy those broken rules, to win more security in more jobs, to lift wages and improve conditions, and establish fundamental rights at work that enable workers to assert their dignity."

“Change the Rules” – two years in action

After its launch in May 2017, the growing Change the Rules campaign (CtR) has progressed to national days of action last December and on April 10th. Dozens of  community-union groups and actions have been driving the campaign along,  The main message has been “Australia needs a wage rise”, revealed by wages and other data showing worsening inequality, enabled by the “broken rules” of the Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA2009).

The aim of the campaign is to “change the rules” in the current FWA09 by enabling workers to learn about their potential to change the situation for the better, through their unions.

Employers, government and the commercial media are reacting to the agenda. The link between “broken rules”, job insecurity and underemployment, frozen or declining wages for the majority, and growing inequality is more widely accepted, and still growing.

Mainly in Victoria, the days of action have been defiant, as many workers left their workplaces to participate, and in doing so learnt of their common experience across thousands of different workplaces, and met new allies in their struggles. In NSW the day of action for May 1st was a significant breakthrough. Led by a group of unions who value the importance of defiance in our history and coming together to see and feel each other’s solidarity, we now have a foundation for future, bigger, defiant May 1st celebrations.

The leadership of women activists at all levels of the campaign is an outstanding feature. Women now make up the majority of union members in this country. The issues of insecure work and low pay disproportionately affect women. It is fitting that more and more women are taking on leadership roles in the union movement.

The campaign has reached into different migrant worker communities and, activists from these groups are often prominent in the demonstrations, and street and market stalls.

Active and visible campaign teams are established in many localities across the country, and more appear every week. Retired unionists and committed activists started many of them, and they have now recruited local workers, and many people taking part in a campaign for the first time in their lives. Some are persuading people to join their union.

For two years our experience is that people everywhere are happy to engage with the campaign. Many show their appreciation, and some talk about their particular and general frustrations. Door-knocking is also well-received. Across the country, thousands of petitions and pledges have been signed against the Coalition at the coming election, and social media is full of pictures taken with placards reading “Australia needs a wage rise”.

We, the SEARCH Foundation, strongly support the campaign because, fundamentally, the FWA09 is a part of the neoliberal framework of government action that supports employers and their priorities, maintains and makes inequality worse, and prevents workers having a direct influence on their future. There are many “broken rules” that start with the objectives of the Act itself.

We urge more and deeper discussion of the Change the Rules strategy. In particular, how do we continue the campaign if Labor wins government, and if it is dependent on the Greens and cross bench support to make its laws.

The CtR Campaign, the federal election and union industrial action

At the start of 2019, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus sharpened the focus by asserting that to “Change the Rules” we needed to “Change the Government in 2019”.

The local campaign teams are now focussed on electoral activity to defeat government candidates and their One Nation associates. The central messages are “we need to change the government to change the rules” and “put the Liberals last”. This is valid, of course, but we say that a more effective union industrial strategy – the core task of unionism – is just as important, probably even more so.

There are isolated but important cases of industrial activity that challenge the “broken rules”, for example the Longford Esso maintenance dispute and the Big Steps campaign.

Industrial disputes, when they become widely known, reveal to the public the unfairness and injustice of the “broken rules” and why a new government is needed to change those rules. Traditionally these are organised by unions, with many separated, un-coordinated industrial actions that comply with the enterprise bargaining rules. But the facts show that enterprise bargaining is now a failure getting worse. Our successes are fewer and weaker. It’s time to create a break from this anti-solidarity dead end.

We say that changing the government to change the rules is necessary, but it will not be enough for a genuine breakthrough by workers against inequality.  

The ALP response and power for workers and their unions?

As mainly an electoral campaign we should assess the impact of the campaign on the ALP because it is the major party that could form a new national government.

At its National Conference in December 2018 and since the ALP has made number of commitments. However, it left open what its election position would be on critical issues, including what would happen after further discussions with employer organisations.

Some commitments are consistent with campaign priorities. They include:

  • restore penalty rates;
  • abolish the ABCC;
  • stop the unilateral termination of enterprise agreements, and employers using sham enterprise agreements.
  • Significantly (triple) increase penalties for systemic and intentional underpayment of wages.
  • corporations who are the economic decision makers will be held responsible for underpayments that occur along their supply chain unless they can prove that they took all reasonable steps to prevent it from occurring.
  • ensure the minimum wage is a living wage
  • 10 days’ paid family and domestic violence leave.
  • introducing an objective definition of casual employment;
  • strengthen the Fair Work Commission’s power to order pay increases for workers in female-dominated industries such as early childhood, aged care and disability services.

As welcome as these are, they are so far not good enough when it comes to power for the workers.

So far, there is still no adequate commitment on three very important issues that are about power for workers and their unions:

  • the right to strike;
  • the scope of multi-employer bargaining, especially the status of award bargaining;
  • the rights of workplace union representatives.

Labor’s stated policy hints at these things in principle but they have done this before without actually implementing the changes, especially when they created the Fair Work Act in 2007-9.

We say that more clarity is still needed on how the policy might be applied in any changes to the current Act. For example, Labor says that the current restricted right to industrial action actually complies with international standards and suggests no specific improvements at this time. And Bill Shorten says that he is not yet convinced of the need for industry bargaining.

Labor’s current position remains so unclear, it might mean

  1. Continued protected industrial action (PIA) restricted just to enterprise bargaining, but reducing the current powers of employers to frustrate the enterprise bargaining process, or
  2. Extended PIA to some limited form of multi-employer or award based bargaining, or
  3. Extended PIA to the handling of grievances and workplace level disputes, or
  4. Extended PIA to support annual living wage claims in Annual Wage Reviews.

At this stage only the first option seems possible. That might change. Labor seems to want new powers for the Fair Work Commission rather than new power for workers and their unions.

We note also that Labor’s proposal to “ensure a living wage” does not actually do that. At this point it leaves the definition of that and the progress towards it in the hands of the Fair Work Commission.

The ALP’s chief spokesperson, Brendan O’Connor, has made it quite clear that employers, not just the unions, will have a powerful role in the consultations that will help design the new rules in a new FWA. This repeats the compromised Labor process in 2008-9 that created the ”broken rules” we are now struggling against.

What happens if Labor wins – the CtR campaign after the election

The relationship between the pre-election electoral campaign and ongoing industrial campaigns of workers and their unions will be tested even if Labor wins the election.

For many, the election of a Labor or Labor-Greens government will be enough, even if the changes do not go very far.

But for many others, including ourselves, any Labor changes should be seen as a platform for further change and continued escalated activity to win genuine new power for workers and their unions.

It is likely that under a new Labor government there will be significant “unfinished business” for workers and their unions after the elections.

Unions are above all else formed to enable workers to exert direct counter-power – strikes included - against employers and governments, starting in the workplace with grievances and disputes over all sorts of matters, in various forms of bargaining and in social and political demands. Solidarity action – illegal under the current rules - makes a real difference to workers in all of these situations. The democratic, thoughtful and effective use of this power enables workers to see the sense of “being union” and joining. It’s what makes a real difference.

To the extent necessary, post-election union activity must focus on restoring real power to workers and their unions not to the FWC and the Fair Work Ombudsman. We must push hard for this during the election campaign and afterwards.

However, there is rare experience of post-election movement (especially for most of the current generation) that both prevents the re-emergence of an LNP government and also pushes an ALP government to implement more advanced workers’ and social rights.

In 2007, the union movement’s Your Rights At Work campaign was decisive in the defeat of the Howard LNP government. However, that campaign was not maintained while the new government worked with union leaders and employers to create the FWA09 that retained the “broken rules” that have harmed workers so much since. Most who were active in that campaign left it to union leaders and the Labor government to “do what was necessary”. That strategy failed.

We cannot let that happen again, and we must prepare to prevent it before the election.

Clearly, after the Federal Election, the ACTU and its affiliates will have to maintain coordinators, continue to produce resource material, develop a more adequate industrial strategy, and continue to provide a national framework for the campaign work. Leaving things to the parliamentary Labor Party will be another dead end.

Preparing for more workers’ power if Labor wins: strikes and other industrial action

Union density remains one of the two great strategic problems for Australian workers and their unions.

Union density simply must grow over the next few years, and associated with that, the willingness of workers to use industrial action in support of their demands when that is required.

The two problems are connected. Workers who take industrial action to back up their claims to fix a workplace grievance will join and / or strengthen their union, whether or not that action is punished under the law.

For stronger union density, industrial action at this level is as important as in enterprise bargaining or multi-employer, award bargaining. It must be an essential part of working life if there is a new Labor government. It will be the most effective challenge to “wage theft”, phony self-contracting, and systematic bullying against workers that is now an accepted business model across most industries. In the process new members will appear and new union leaders will emerge.

The campaign can be pushed onwards, by

  • informal and formal discussion at the local level, and
  • member input into the national campaign thinking,
  • building contacts in local non-union or low-union workplaces where grievances are visible and then delivering solidarity support,
  • preparing for defiant industrial activity, especially after the election.

All participants in the campaign can and should be equipped to explain clearly to the broader public the importance of the “right to strike”.

Everyone will benefit from more extended and plain language resource material on the “right to strike”, options for multi-employer bargaining, and other priority changes to create new rules that are in workers’ interests.

This would give more depth to the formal and informal discussions that will flow from the election. This will strengthen the hand of those union leaders who will be in the consultations with any new government and employers about what the new rules will look like.

And a living wage for the lowest paid?

In late 2017 and early 2018 the ACTU presented powerful arguments about wage stagnation for those workers on the lowest wages in particular, and it’s clear link to rising inequality, and presented strong evidence for a new living wage standard. But the current broken rules remain an obstacle to this objective.

During this election campaign, the 2018-19 annual review is proceeding.  Again the ACTU is proposing a new living wage as the minimal wage, implemented over 2 years, including closing the gender pay gap. The final consultations for this year’s Review will take place in the last week or so of the election campaign. This is an opportunity for broader education of the public about the difference that strong unionism can make.

In conclusion

Changing the collective bargaining rules to the advantage of workers and their unions will take time, especially in the face of what will be a powerful employer effort to block these changes, to weaken them, or to delay them until they can restore an LNP government.

The union movement will grow again as it struggles for these changes and at the same time pursues strong industrial campaigns that demonstrate the logic and importance of “changing the rules” and to defy those broken rules, to win more security in more jobs, to lift wages and improve conditions, and establish fundamental rights at work that enable workers to assert their dignity.

As socialists, the members of the SEARCH Foundation, many with decades of consistent commitment to workers and their unions, will contribute more to growing the campaign. In doing so we offer our activity, our views about the campaign, its connection to the other great issue of our time – climate change – and the understanding of economic crisis when it strikes again.

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