In the biggest virtual union meeting in Australian history on Tuesday night, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) said it was forming a “rapid action group that’s ready to take on any employer who abuses” new regulations introduced by the Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter.
The ACTU is also beginning a “mass recruitment campaign” for new union memberships during the COVID-19 lockdown to counter moves by big business to use the cover of the pandemic to slash wages and conditions.
Under new regulations made by the government on Thursday last week, workers only have 24 hours instead of 7 days to vote on changes to their enterprise bargaining agreements (EBA) proposed by employers.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus (pictured above) told the online meeting of thousands of union members that the government had buckled to a “straight up power grab” from big businesses, who were keen to rush through reductions in wages and conditions while denying people their right to representation and basic fairness.
“It’s the worst type of ripping people off – it’s exploiting a pandemic, a global public health crisis, exploiting the fear and uncertainty about the jobs crisis to try and get reductions in conditions in the EBAs, when they knew they wouldn’t be able to do it normally without discussing it with the unions,” said McManus.
McManus asked union members to unite in a public campaign against the first employer that tries to exploit the new rules to reduce conditions, similar to previous successful public boycotts against Carlton and United Breweries (CUB) and Streets ice creams.
“If we all decide we’re all going to target that employer and make it very clear that we consider it completely unacceptable, despicable, that any employer would seek to expoloit this health crisis, we can send a message to every employer that the union movement is a people’s movement and the people’s movement say no,” she said.
“Send them a very strong message that it’s not acceptable to exploit this pandemic to take away your rights at work. We know if we do a very good job with the first employer that tries it, it will send a strong message that it’s unacceptable and it wouldn’t be a very good business decision to try to use that law.”
While the new regulation introduced by Porter is only valid for six months, changes made to EBAs would remain in place after the crisis. Only 50% of people voting need to vote yes for changes to go through, not 50% of the workers affected (“You can think about how that can be rorted,” McManus said).
“A lot of damage can happen in 6 months; you can imagine a whole lot of bad employers will be rubbing their hands together and saying ‘I was always trying to get rid of this particular right workers got but could never get them to agree during negotiations of EBAs so i might as well try it now’,” McManus said.
Labor and the Greens on Tuesday confirmed they would seek to partner with Senate crossbenchers on a disallowance motion to reverse the regulation in May when Parliament resumes for two days.
“It’s already tough to [get advice and consider proposed changes to EBAs] within 7 days but you reduce it to 24 hours, lay on top of that a pandemic where people are scared for their jobs, working from home in difficult circumstances, how hard will it be .. to be able to consider a change that’s put to you?,” said McManus.
“They didn’t consult the ACTU or any union, they didn’t even consult the states and territories which they’re required to. They did it because big business was demanding it.”
The Business Council of Australia has been lobbying for changes to delay/cancel pay rises, remove restrictions on part-time work and increase ability of employers to dictate hours and direct employees to take leave.
In 2017 union members ran a public campaign boycotting Streets ice cream on behalf of 140 Streets factory workers at Minto in Sydney’s South West. The company was attempting to terminate its EBA with staff which would have cut the Streets workers’ annual salaries by up to 50% if they were forced on to the award wage. The boycott was called off after workers accepted a wages offer from the multinational firm.
Unions claimed a similar victory in 2016 after a public boycott campaign against CUB beers, which was sparked by the company’s attempts to lay off workers and force them to re-apply for their jobs with a new contractor on significantly inferior pay and conditions. Unions dubbed it a “history victory” when the company backed down after a 180 day campaign and the workers returned to work at the brewery in Abbotsford in Melbourne, with their jobs secure and conditions intact.
Australia is entering the worst downturn in its history and up to 3.4 million Australians could lose their jobs, according to the Grattan Institute.
Big business is already seizing on the crisis to demand a shift to small government, deregulation and changes to workplace laws which further cement corporate power over workers.
The federal government has announced plans to cave in to business demands by slashing corporate taxes and regulations, including an aggressive overhaul of industrial relations laws.
Asked if the ACTU was concerned that the government may try to re-introduce WorkChoices laws, McManus said that while she was on guard it would be difficult for the government to push through industrial relations laws while Parliament is not sitting. Porter’s changes to the regulations last week did not require new laws to be created and passed and the government had previously failed to get another piece of anti union legislation through, called the Ensuring Integrity Bill.
“At the moment i’m not seeing signs of them trying to put through more changes to the Fair Work Act,” McManus said.
The ACTU is driving a “huge push” to increase union memberships during the crisis and McManus is asking union members to ensure the wider public is aware that the Jobkeeper wage subsidies would not have happened if not for the trade union movement of Australia.
“That’s $200 a week more than Jobseeker there because of the trade union movement … it wasn’t because of the government, it wasn’t because of their employer, it was because of the union movement,” said McManus.
“If [the public] cannot see during the pandemic that we need a strong union movement and we’re stronger together and you need the protection of being part of your union, then I don’t know when we’re going to have a better demonstration.”
Whoever signs up the most union members between now and the end of May will receive an all expenses paid trip to shadow McManus for the day.
McManus said she expected businesses to be rorting the Jobkeeper package and there would be people denied Jobkeeper at places where they’re not union members.
“Think about it, before this pandemic wage theft was rife and it was happening because people aren’t members of their unions,” she said.
Matt Hrkac, a member of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), who was in attendance at the union meeting on Tuesday night, said the ACTU response was “too timid” and it was clear from the chat during the meeting that union members want the union leadership to be more “proactive in demanding better”.
“By proactive I mean actively using their resources to push for change from a grassroots level, as opposed to their current reactive approach of only responding to issues as they arise,” said Hrkac.
He said the union movement was too reactive and always on the back foot playing catch up.
“There has been a tendency for the ACTU to wait until governments make announcements attacking workers rights before spurning people into action,” said Hrkac.
“Why is the ACTU not using its massive reach and resources to firmly demand better for working class people? Without giving workers something to aspire to, growing or even maintaining union membership will be impossible; meanwhile ideologically driven governments continue to attack working class people.”
(Lead photo credit: Matt Hrkac – http://matthrkac.com.au)