Recently, the highly publicised RTBU strike has brought unionism to the forefront of national debate. This saw workers take the fight for increased pay and better conditions to the NSW Transport Minister, Andrew Constance. The 24-hour strike resulted from the breakdown of months of discussion between workers and a Minister unwilling to compromise.
Before any action was taken, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) – the peak government body for workplace relations – ruled against any action, claiming that the potential impact on commuters and the economy was too great. This signalled a huge degradation of the right to strike and the FWC’s willingness to intervene in industrial action, despite the fact that workers followed all legal requirements and were within their rights to withdraw labour.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) expressed outrage – claiming that the right to strike in Australia was “nearly dead”. And they are right to think so. Australians do not possess the same liberty to engage in industrial action as most other developed countries, facing more barriers than even the United States. This is a huge concern that is not given the attention it deserves.
Strike action is not only a means of upholding and improving workers’ conditions, but a basic human right under international law (ILO Convention No. 87). The FWC’s repudiation of this right not only deprives workers of the opportunity to stand up to unjust treatment, but it enslaves them to a life of stagnant wages and inferior work conditions.
The FWC’s decision sent a powerful message to workers and unions around the country, that regardless of your working conditions and the legality of your action, striking will not be tolerated. For a country that has immensely benefited from unions and collective action, this is terrifying. Sadly, this is just the most recent anti-worker decision adopted under this Liberal government.
The recently ended lockout at Oaky North Mine saw Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union workers denied entry to their workplace for more than 200 days, following a series of industrial disputes with the owner, Glencore. Although the FWC eventually called an end to the lockout last week, they were 200 days too late. Their contradictory approach to industrial intervention and eagerness to appease corporate bodies deprived workers of months of income and resulted in the longest lockout in Australian history.
The inconsistencies of the FWC cannot be ignored. They are quick to nullify the strike action of workers, but when bosses are the ones denying labour, they turn a blind eye. Their vital role in stifling worker’s voices and weakening workplace rights further emphasises the need for a re-examination of a system rigged to disadvantage working people. As ACTU secretary Sally McManus has argued – the rules need to be changed.
Our generation must not take our current working conditions for granted. The role of unions is often minimised or passed off as something distant in our collective consciousness. This should not be the case. Workers’ rights affect every cross-section of society and they lead to equal rights. It was only after a lengthy union campaign that the wage rate for women was increased from 54% to 75%. And in 1966, union action achieved equal pay for Indigenous Australians who had previously earned one-fifth of their white counterparts.
The industrial relations system then proceeded to reduce working hours and provision of penalty rates. A significant number of closed-shop arrangements (workplaces that required its employees to join a particular union) had also existed.
After 1996, John Howard ushered in an extensive range of union-busting reforms – resulting in the electorally unpopular ‘WorkChoices’ campaign and Labor’s subsequent 2007 victory. One Howard reform that remained, however, was that workers were free to not join a union in any workplace. Hence, Closed-shop arrangements and fairshare agreements (union levies on non-union members benefiting from union activity) were rendered unlawful. This had obvious and far-reaching implications on union effectiveness.
Every worker benefits greatly from union activity and as unions continue to advocate for all workers in their industry, the Coalition created a free-rider problem – workers are not incentivised to join their union when they benefit regardless. If your industry is not unionised, you are still supported by the minimum standards of an industry award and minimum standards provisions – thanks to unionism.
The Coalition’s impact on workers is clear. Although over 60 per cent of workers are covered by Award or collective agreements, union membership since 1998 has plummeted from 40 per cent to 15 per cent, while private sector membership lingers below 10 per cent. The Fair Work Act clearly has not gone far enough to restore workers’ rights.
Unfortunately, these developments are largely divorced from students working 15 hours a week:
“Why would you need to join a union, if you work hard, you’ll get ahead” is something often heard.
Unfortunately, that school of thought warrants a disregard for history, and an idealised version of businesses akin to that of trickle-down-economics.
Corporations do not care if you are an effective worker. If they can make you more cost-effective, they will not take into account whether you will be worse off. That is clear from the number of employers who cut workers’ penalty rates.
Not coincidentally, since union memberships have dropped, 110,000 workers’ jobs have been casualised with a reduction in the hours and entitlements they sorely need. 51,300 people have become independent contractors with no substantial entitlements. This disproportionately affects young people. This affects us. One-third of young people under 34 are casuals without any certainty that they will be able to provide for their families. Government decisions to cut workers’ rights diminish all of us.
The Coalition do not consider the personal impacts of their industrial reforms. Despite their rhetoric, their policies demonstrate disregard for workers faced with an environment that systematically diminishes our bargaining power.
Union-busting and corporate tax cuts won’t make us more secure and they won’t give our generation a better quality of life.
Lachlan McGregor is a member of the Labor party and current Secretary of the ANU Labor Left. Kain O’Dea is also a member of the Labor party.