In the Explanatory Memorandum for its Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 (Cth), the Federal Government equates industrial action in the building industry with “intimidation, lawlessness, thuggery and violence”. The Bill provides for the prohibition of unlawful industrial action and the imposition of higher penalties for unlawful action.
One example of industrial action cited in the Memorandum is the 2012 dispute in Melbourne between the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), and the Grollo construction company (Grocon). Recently, the CFMEU was fined $1.25 million in the Victorian Supreme Court over protests associated with that dispute.
Other legislation proposed by the Federal Government had the stated aim to increase the financial transparency and accountability of unions, with criminal sanctions to help ensure this. Underlined by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s focus on labour costs and union influence as factors stifling Australian manufacturing, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, and media stories about union corruption, it is reasonable to conclude that the Federal Government is preparing the ground for a profound transformation of Australian industrial relations. There is speculation this may involve union deregistration and even the outlawing of industrial action generally.
These moves are happening against the background of the Federal Government’s program of economic structural adjustment, involving economic deregulation, significant government spending cuts and privatisations. From this perspective, a reduction in the influence of organised labour – particularly of the militant kind – would make things less potentially troublesome for the Government. The CFMEU appears to be a special target.
But how radical a departure will there be from the previous Labor Government’s policies in this area? The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 provides for re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The ABCC had been set up by the Howard Government to police the building industry, but was later replaced under the Labor Government with the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, which essentially filled the same role.
In 2012, the Australian Council of Trade Unions expressed concerns to the International Labour Organization (ILO) about the “coercive” investigative powers of the Inspectorate, including in relation to the “prosecution of workers and their organizations”. The relevant ILO committee asked the Labor Government to respond to these concerns.
A deeper understanding of the dialectic at work here is required than that suggested by the Labor Government–Liberal/National Government framing. Considered over a longer time span, the anticipated dramatic reform of the industrial relations system appears as an accretion on earlier changes. A rightwards lurch yes. But an incremental one.
The transformation of the Australian industrial relations system over recent decades is covered in The Laws of Australia, updated Subtitle 26.3 “Australian Industrial Relations System” . If this transformation is understood as a process of decentralisation, it began under Labor Governments in the 1980s and 1990s. The move away from a centralised system of award determination of pay and conditions culminated in the 1993 legislation for enterprise bargaining and necessarily involved a reduction in union strength and influence – again against a backdrop of economic structural adjustment, including deregulation and privatisation.
Whether present developments evolve into a qualitative transformation of Australian industrial relations will depend on the effectiveness of concerted action by the interested parties. Recognition of the shared assumptions and policy approaches of the main political players is also necessary.
Much is at stake. A strong and politically independent trade union movement is necessary for many reasons, not least, maintenance of Australia’s healthy democracy.
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