We must change Australia’s broken industrial laws
Australia’s current industrial laws are stacked against workers.
Employers effectively hold disproportionate power and this imbalance is filtering through not just to our working lives but our personal ones as well.
This situation is impacting not just IEUA-QNT members’ lives but those of our students, our children, our families and our communities.
It’s creating growing inequality for the majority of Australians.
The rules need to change and our union is working to do just that alongside our colleagues across the country through the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Change The Rules campaign.
There are many examples of just how broken Australia’s industrial laws are.
From employers’ ability to choose whether or not they even bargain with employees, through to them actively seeking to terminate hard fought for collective agreements and start a process of bargaining where everything has to be negotiated again.
The reality that Australian workers find themselves with such a distinct lack of power and control over their working lives is made even more shameful given the fact that we were promised under the Fair Work Act that collective bargaining would be the vehicle for improvements in wages and conditions.
Awards were to become redundant.
Instead our reality is now one in which the bargaining regime is in decline, legalistic interventions by employers frustrate the process and where the Fair Work Commission’s time is spent on changing a few words in an Award that was in fact supposed to become redundant with the promised universality of collective agreements.
It’s time to change the rules — and we, as a collective, need to change them.
Why the rules need to change
The below comparison has been adapted from the Is Work in Australia Working? report by Tim Lyons of PerCapita Research and outlines the changes to work Australia has seen since the 1970s.
The right to strike amost extinct
Despite following onerous industrial action laws to the letter, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) saw their proposed 24-hour rail strike cancelled by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) in January following a challenge from the New South Wales state government.
The RTBU went through the legal process to apply for the ballot for protected action, ticked every box, and their proposed strike was supposed to be legal under the Fair Work Act.
However, the planned strike was ruled ‘unlawful’ if it were to proceed by the Fair Work Commission.
Under the Fair Work Commission judgement, the RTBU was prevented from taking protected industrial action for six weeks and forced to rescind its ban on overtime.
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus said the ruling demonstrated the basic right to strike in Australia was “very nearly dead”.
“When working people and their union go through every possible hoop and hurdle and are still denied these basic rights, it is no secret why so many workers haven’t had a pay rise,” Ms McManus said.
Such a case demonstrates just how easy it is for employers to complicate and disrupt the efforts of employees who are trying to have their voices heard through the most fundamental way possible for workers.
Laws embolden employers to do what they like
For IEUA-QNT members, the disregard with which employers hold the collective bargaining system has been most recently demonstrated by Carinity Education – a division of the Queensland Baptists.
From the moment the employer entered into collective bargaining negotiations mid-last year, it became evident that their intention was to force employees onto a sub-standard agreement and cut a range of current working conditions.
Despite serious member concerns resulting in protected action by employees across Carinity Education schools, the employer seemed embolden by the current industrial climate putting out to ballot a nonagreed proposal to employees late last year.
Unsurprisingly, our members and Carinity Education employees rejected the substandard offer from the employer.
A logical next step would have been for the employer to ascertain, through the resumed bargaining process, the major concerns of their employees.
However, the employer instead disregarded the employees’ rejection of proposed cutsto conditions and is yet again seeking to further reduce these as part of resumed negotiations.
Carinity Education continues to force substandard conditions on its workers despite the vocal rejection by employees.
The employer’s complete lack of respect for their staff is obvious, but what is also plainly obvious is that they can have confidence that current industrial laws allow them to do so.
Playing games with workers’ rights
A recent case at Sholem Aleichem College in Victoria is another example of an employer using the current laws to defeat the legitimate requests of employees.
After the employer refused to enter into bargaining for a collective agreement, IEUA members indicated their support for bargaining through a petition.
The Fair Work Act contains a provision where a majority request is supposed to force an employer to bargain.
A majority of the College’s continuing employees signed the petition.
However, the IEUA’s application to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for bargaining to commence was opposed by the employer.
The FWC then asked the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to conduct a ballot of employees.
As part of this ballot process the employer was to provide a list of employees.
In order to frustrate the ballot process, the employer initially included on the list of employees the names of 41 casual employees, some of whom had not worked for the College for a number of years.
Whilst this list of casuals was subsequently reduced to 37, the inclusion of significant numbers of casual employees with only a tenuous connection to the College turned the ballot process into a farce.
The employer’s manipulation of the number of employees on the books created a bigger electorate, and skewed the number of votes in favour of collective bargaining to reflect less than 50% — leaving the vast majority of current employees without the ability to pursue the collective agreement they wanted. The Commission’s inability to limit the ballot to employees with ongoing employment shows just how unfair the system is and how far employers can go to take advantage of their employees.
For more on why the rules need to change go to: www.australianunions.org.au/change_the_rules