It’s Time to Fight for Worker Rights, Again

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Worker Rights sign in front of an Australian flag

The blocking of the planned 24 hour Rail, Tram and Bus Union’s (RTBU) strike on January 29, along with the halt to its ongoing bans on overtime, are a stark reminder of just how significantly worker rights have been eroded in this country.

The Rudd government’s Fair Work Act 2009 was supposed rebalance industrial relations laws for workers, in response to the effects of Howard’s Work Choices. However, today, these federal IR laws are completely stifling workers’ abilities to carry out any meaningful industrial action.

Rudd’s legislation created the Fair Work Commission. Its senior deputy president Jonathan Hamberger is the man who ordered an end to the proposed Sydney rail strike last month, after he’d heard suspension applications made by Sydney Trains, and the state industrial relations minister.

Under Fair Work Commission directions, Centrelink strikes were cancelled in February last year, following federal government complaints. While in December 2016, the commission reigned in 600 Esso workers nationwide, who were about to walk off the job indefinitely.

And while these powers to choke significant strike action are welcomed by many employers, the long-term effects they’re having on society as a whole benefit few.

In the bag

Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Sally McManus is one of the most vocal opponents of the general erosion of workers’ rights in Australia. Following the commission’s ban on the rail worker industrial action, she declared that the right to strike is “very nearly dead.”

According to McManus, the commission’s ruling “highlights some serious shortcomings in the Fair Work Act.” She stressed that “the Act does not confer any broad right to strike, but only a very limited immunity for what is defined as protected industrial action.”

Protected actions are indeed limited. It is outlined within the provisions of the Act that these work stoppages can only be carried out in support of claims where no enterprise agreement currently exists.

And a union must provide an employer with three working days’ notice prior to an action taking place, which basically gives those in charge time to apply to the commission to have the action quashed.

Protecting against improvements

The RBTU followed all the required processes before calling the action, and yet the commission stepped in regardless. The Fair Work Commission relied upon the provisions of section 424 of the Act, whereby the strike was deemed a threat to the economy and the public.

The rail strike suspension highlights “the relative ease with which the limited right to take industrial action can be nullified and the bargaining power of workers reduced to zero,” McManus told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

The ACTU secretary added that provisions exist within the Act to take down any effective action that’s sufficiently well-organised to exert pressure to achieve actual demands. And this has all led to the “perfect conditions for the current period of wage stagnation.”

The deceleration of wage growth

As Australia Institute director Jim Stanford suggests in a recently released report on Australian industrial disputes over recent decades, there’s a causal link between the historically low levels of work stoppages in this country, and this current decade’s slow growth in wages.

The relative frequency of industrial actions in Australia has declined by 97 percent since the 1970s. Strikes peaked at around 2,000 work stoppages a year back then, but over the last seven years, they average out at less than 200 annually.

“There is a clear relationship visible over Australia’s post war economic history between the frequency of industrial disputes and the pace of wage growth,” Stanford made clear in the report.

In the heady 1970s, when Australian workers were taking to the streets in numbers never seen before or since, annual wage increases actually peaked at 13 percent.

However, over the present decade, since industrial disputes have dropped to record lows, average weekly earnings have only risen by around 2.5 percent annually.

The end of enterprise bargaining

“The most recent figures also show that enterprise bargaining has stalled and the number of agreements that have been concluded has declined,” Ms McManus continued. And the Australia Institute has linked this decline with wage stagnation as well.

Figures released mid-last month revealed that over the September quarter last year, the number of employees covered by enterprise bargaining agreements fell by 170,000, which is one of the largest drops ever recorded.

And over the last four years, the gradual decline in private sector workers who are covered by an enterprise agreement has dropped by a staggering 40 percent. And this means these workers have experienced either a cut to pay or conditions, or both.

The failure of workers’ collective bargaining capacity, coupled with the loss of meaningful strike action, reveals that the industrial relations system in this country is at crisis point.

Changing the rules

As far as Ms McManus is concerned, what’s needed at present is a change to the rules “that govern how we work if we want to unlock pay rises for working people.”

“Bargaining is virtually dead,” McManus declared. And the rules and regulations are all geared up to benefit employers. “Even when, as a last resort, people decide to take strike action, the employer can simply have the commission cancel it,” she continued.

Back in September last year, Ms McManus launched the Change the Rules campaign, which is designed to bring about some pro-worker changes to industrial relations laws. She explained at the time that the Fair Work Act was never intended to bring about the negative changes that it has.

And McManus called on the Turnbull government to do something about it.

Breaking what’s already broken

However, at present in this country, wage growth is the lowest it has ever been, while inequality is at a 70 year high. And the richest 1 percent of Australians own as much at the bottom 70 percent.

So, just quietly, no one is really surprised that industrial relations laws have been set up to benefit those up top.

Ms McManus caused controversy last March, when she remarked that she had no problem with workers breaking “unjust laws.” And it seems that changes desperately need to come about soon.

Back when strike action was at its most powerful, workers weren’t waiting for governments to legislate legal industrial action, rather, they were out there causing chaos in the system, demanding that they were provided with better conditions, or else it would all come grinding to a halt.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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