Industrial relations reform in Australia and the campaign against it, 2005

Letter from Australia by their Treason group to Prol-Position about proposed new anti-worker legislation in 2005.

In 1996 The Liberal Party (analogous to the UK Conservatives) led by John Howard in coalition with the National Party (the farmers party) won control of the federal government after 13 years of Labor government. In October 2004 Howard won his fourth term in office and for the first a time since the early 1980s an Australian government has a majority in the upper house of Parliament, the Senate. In the first three terms of the Howard government they were forced to negotiate with independent, Greens or Australian Democrats (a small centrist party) senators to pass their legislation. So with this Senate majority the government has returned to its austerity agenda which largely stalled in 2000-01. The centrepiece of this agenda is an attack on wages and conditions by changing the laws governing employment. The legislation will not come before Parliament until September and has not yet been made public but according to the government the following changes will be included in the reform package:
Unfair dismissal protection for workers in companies with less than 100 employees will be removed. This will leave 5 million workers or two-thirds of the workforce with no recourse to the unfair dismissal laws. Larger companies are also expected to take advantage of this situation by splitting their businesses so that no single legal entity employs more than 100 people. This will obviously give the bosses much greater power in the workplace with the possibility of instant dismissal hanging over most workers if they step out of line.
The Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), the court which currently sets minimum wages, will be replaced with a Fair Pay Commission whose members will have no security of tenure and thus be easily replaceable by the government if they don’t set the wages the government wants. The Workplace Relations minister, Kevin Andrews, has stated that minimum wage workers are overpaid by $70/week.
It will be much easier for workers to be shifted onto individual contracts known as Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). Currently only 5% of workers are on AWAs with the rest employed either under state or federal awards, which are negotiated before the AIRC between the unions and employer bodies for an entire industry or Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) that are also usually negotiated by unions.
AWAs will only have to include provisions covering holiday leave, personal leave, parental leave and maximum hours. Employers will no longer be required to pay overtime, weekend and public holiday loadings or make redundancy payments. Under AWAs employers will be able to forcibly pay out up to two weeks of the standard four weeks annual leave. Secret ballots run by the Australian Electoral Commission will have to be held before industrial action can legally be taken. These ballots can take up to 10 days to organise, so they are designed to stop industrial action. Any ”third party” that claims to have been affected by industrial action will be able apply to the AIRC to have it stopped. There will be more severe penalties against individual workers and unions for engaging in ”illegal” industrial action. The government business practices watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, will be able to interfere in disputes and take legal action against a union even when the employer doesn’t want to pursue legal action.
In response to these looming attacks on workers the unions organised demonstrations in dozens of cities and larger towns between June 26 and July 1 with a combined attendance of some 300 000 people. Many workers effectively went on strike for at least part of the day to attend the protests. Australia Post and pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smith Kline obtained injunctions from the AIRC to stop their workers attending. 185 posties have had disciplinary action begun against them for attending the rallies.
Australia’s second largest city, Melbourne, had the largest protest with perhaps 150 000 attending. A comrade who was there said that the demonstration was 70% male, predominantly blue collar and organised by workplace.
In the state of New South Wales the unions didn’t originally intend to hold demonstrations instead organising a state-wide mass meeting linked by satellite TV. However the desire of workers to take action forced the unions in NSW to organise protests. However in Australia’s largest city, Sydney, the unions split the demonstrations up with 20,000 marching in the CBD and smaller rallies in various suburbs.
Here in Canberra only 500 turned up at the Hyatt Hotel to protest against the Liberal Party meeting being held there but it was a Sunday morning. I heard one construction worker ask another ”are we going to storm the joint?” This was probably a reference to the events of August 19 1996 when a few thousand people left a union rally against the Howard government’s first budget and attempted to storm Parliament House. Those events still haunt the unions and the current campaign is the first time since then that unions have mobilised workers in a political campaign against the government. Given an outlet to express their frustrations with the worsening standard of living in Australia workers attended the protests in large numbers. This was more despite the unions than because of them. The unions spent $8 million on TV ads attacking the changes yet the ads didn’t advertise the demonstrations.
If AWAs become the norm there will be little role for unions as institutionalised mediators. The unions are thus mobilising workers to try and convince employers and the government that unions are still needed to control workers antagonism. Despite the widespread desire to strike against the reforms the unions have no intention of organising strikes and are instead hoping to influence Liberal or National senators to break with the government they are part of and vote down the legislation.
Workers in Australia sadly have little recent tradition of autonomous action and there do not appear to be any moves to organise opposition to the changes separately from the unions. There is another round of demonstrations planned for August and September but if no serious antagonism is expressed then the changes will no doubt go through.
To be continued…

Further Reading
* ”Australia: mass protests against industrial relations legislation” World Socialist Website, 2 July 2005,
* Bolton, Sue. ”Howard’s lies on industrial relations ‘reforms’”, Green Left Weekly July 20 2005,
* Deer, Luke. ”’Precisely because it was the seat of government’: The Parliament House riot of 1996”,
* Head, Mike. ”Australia: New workplace laws to slash pay and conditions”, World Socialist Website, 14 June 2005,

[prol-position news #3, 8/2005]

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Jan 5 2010 13:57


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