Workplace laws have revived an old class war

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Canteen Worker

First Grader
Adele Horin
June 16, 2007

The "end of ideology" was pronounced back in 1960 by the US intellectual Daniel Bell. He argued the great ideologies, Marxism, liberalism, and conservatism, had exhausted themselves, and the future lay with pragmatic technocrats. His prediction seemed prescient as Tweedledum and Tweedledee politicians emerged in Australia - all committed to free markets and fair safety nets.

But had Bell dropped into Australia in recent weeks he would have discovered that class warfare is raging. The old divisions between capital and labour have re-emerged as stark as in the 1890s.

Unions are girding to fight the battle of their lives to maintain their relevance and basic workers' rights, such as protection from unfair dismissal. Business is readying to man the barricades in defence of the remarkable prize the Howard Government delivered it in the form of the Work Choices laws.

The political consensus that brought workers and employers closer over two decades, through the union accord of the 1980s, the end of the closed shop and centralised wage fixing, and the conversion of Labor into a business-friendly party that championed free trade, free markets and privatisation has been torn asunder by Work Choices.

John Howard brought ideology back into politics when he delivered all the power in industrial relations to employers. He smashed the consensus that governments must maintain a delicate balance between protecting workers' rights and employers' rights.

He rewrote the industrial relations rules to give bosses unilateral power to introduce individual contracts under which workers could be stripped of penalty rates, overtime and public holidays without compensation. He denied workers protection from unfair dismissal, and the right to bargain collectively. Soon voters will get their first chance to deliver their verdict on whether Howard has tilted the balance too far.

And so we find ourselves revisiting the class wars. Business leaders who once flirted with Paul Keating, and had much to thank Labor for, are fighting for a Coalition victory, with plans for an advertising blitz unrivalled since the mining industry bankrolled a television campaign against Aboriginal land rights in Bob Hawke's days. Unions have never dug deeper to support the Labor Party, though Kevin Rudd, an economic conservative married to a millionaire businesswoman, could hardly be their pin-up boy.

The Liberals have reclaimed the language of class war, spouting the terms "union bosses" and "union thugs" ad nauseam. They have raised the spectre that the ACTU will be pulling a Labor government's strings, like the 12 faceless men and the "reds under the beds" did in olden days. Ancient class war warriors who remember the words of The Internationale, and recall when the Builders' Labourers Federation reigned supreme on building sites, can't believe their time has come again.

It is hard to know whether the scare tactics have traction today when no one is angered by strikes anymore, and for most of the decade the mild-mannered Greg Combet has been the public face of the union movement.

For Labor the lingo of class warfare is less available as Rudd tries to appease business and keep a respectful distance from the union movement, a task made trickier by the ridiculously high proportion of trade union leaders preselected for federal seats.

No senior Labor leader dare talk of "corporate thugs" running the country. Yet arguably corporate leaders have had success beyond their wildest dreams in pulling Howard's strings. How pliable Rudd would be to union pressure is less certain, given how Labor leaders have ignored the wishes of union "bosses" to push through privatisation and tariff reduction.

At stake in the class war of the 21st century is the enlargement of corporate power, the erosion of workers' rights, and the decline in the union movement's significance in public life.

Work Choices is designed to move as many workers as possible onto individual contracts and to diminish the role of trade unions in collective bargaining. Even if an overwhelming majority of workers in a workplace wants to bargain collectively, it is illegal if the boss does not agree. As the dean of law at the University of Sydney, Ron McCallum, says: "The levers of choice are exclusively in the hands of the employers."

Under huge pressure, the Howard Government has taken modest steps to moderate aspects of Work Choices. But under the new "fairness test", Professor McCallum says, it is unclear how "fair compensation" for the loss of penalty rates will be measured, and once the decisions are made by bureaucrats, they are unreviewable and secret.

The unequal power relationship between individual workers and their bosses in most parts of the economy is no less true today than in the past. Many Australians may be too relaxed and comfortable - and have forgotten what recessions are like - to be overly worried about the class war raging above their heads. Their children, however, may rue the day when the nation voted to give corporate bosses greater powers over wages and conditions. Another generation may have to discover for itself why unions were needed in the first place, and fight the class war anew.

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