Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Gillard and the reinvention of Margaret Thatcher

Michael Roux made an observation on-line at Business Spectator (6 April 2010) that perfectly explains the need that the ruling class has for social democracy.

Social democracy is the advocacy of social reform measures within the confines of a parliamentary institution. The Australian Labor Party is the Australian representative of social democracy.

Roux wrote: “'Only Nixon could go to China' is the counter-intuitive rule of modern politics that says that hard but necessary decisions often (and often must) emerge from the opposite end of the political spectrum.”

“Richard Nixon went to China in the middle of the Cold War, the theory goes, because only a communist-bashing conservative US President could possibly negotiate with Chairman Mao without coming across to voters as a weak-kneed appeaser.”

Now, Nixon was no social democrat, but Roux expanded: “A good example last week was President Obama's decision to approve offshore oil drilling; another was free-market reforms overseen by Labor governments in Australia and New Zealand in the 1980s.”

To these examples we might add Julia Gillard’s emerging record on industrial relations.

The conservative Liberal government of Australia had sought through its Work Choices legislation to weaken the collective bargaining rights of workers and to coerce employees into entering into individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements or AWAs) with their bosses.

They had also attacked the most militant section of the working class – construction workers – by setting up a special industry police force, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) with powers to rival those embedded in anti-terrorist legislation.

Workers gave overwhelming support to a Your Rights at Work campaign in the run-up to the election which saw the Liberals thrown out and Labor elected.

Gillard was a major beneficiary, coming in as Deputy Prime Minister with portfolio responsibility for education and industrial affairs.

But what has she done with these responsibilities?

On the positive side, she has put a stop to any new AWAs. She has introduced legislation (the Fair Work Act 2009) that restores and protects collective bargaining. There is some recognition of union rights to enter work sites to engage with members. There is better protection for low-paid workers.

However, AWAs that existed prior to the election or which were written before the passage of the Fair Work Act were not rescinded. Unions are assumed to be the bargaining agents for their members, but members can nominate other bargaining agents (including their employer!), and non-members may nominate the union (getting the advantage of membership without paying for it) or someone else.

Industrial action during a bargaining period is “protected” so long as it is not recommended or ordered by an industrial court that it cease in favour of arbitration before the court. Industrial action taken outside of a bargaining period is not protected and such action is deemed to be illegal and subject to heavy fines and possible jail sentences for union members and their officials.
The hated ABCC remains. It makes second-class citizens of construction workers. A South Australian rigger, Ark Tribe, faces 6 months jail for refusing to answer ABCC interrogators about union intervention over a worksite that government safety inspectors subsequently found to be in breach of regulations. Construction workers have been compelled to work under the supervision of the ABCC for a longer period of time under Gillard than they did under the Liberals.

The coal miner/cop/security guard’s daughter who once dreamed of becoming a teacher has left open an unspecified threat against the nation’s education workers who want her to legislate to prevent the publication of school league tables.

Asked on January 29 2010 whether she would “bring in outsiders” to do the tests that teachers are threatening to boycott she said “I’m not going to speculate but my determination is absolutely clear. The tests will go ahead.” Two days earlier she said she would not “rule anything in or anything out” when asked whether she was “talking about strikebreakers”. Three days before that she had stated she was not ruling “anything or anything out about individual actions to ensure we deliver national testing”, thus indicating that individual teachers engaging in the boycott could well be targeted. On January 19 she stated “action that’s taken not within the context of bargaining is unprotected and there are sanctions and penalties under the workplace relations law to deal with unprotected industrial action.” Once again, she was “ruling nothing in and nothing out”. On January 20, asked whether teachers could have their pay docked”, she was “not ruling anything in or anything out”.

What “unprotected” industrial action means for workers was clearly displayed during Gillard’s response to strike action by workers at Woodside Petroleum’s Pluto gasfield on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia (see strike vote photo below). The workers had been housed in “dongas”, transportable homes in which they could store personal property during their “off” times (this is a remote area and workers are flown in and out on a roster basis). The company sought to reduce costs by “motelling” the workers, which meant a downgrade in their accommodation and inconvenience in relation to personal items left at the workplace during “off” time.

The traditional response to bosses trying to attack conditions is to have a blue, but the Pluto workers found that under the new Fair Work Act, this was illegal. This is how Gillard dealt with Woodside’s attacks on workers’ accommodation entitlements in a radio interview in Perth on 28 January:

STEVE CANNANE: Julia Gillard, good morning.

JULIA GILLARD: Good morning.

STEVE CANNANE: How do you respond to Mr Masson’s and Woodside’s observation that they need you to come out and say you strongly support the rule of law, that you have to be tough here and if anything force these workers to arbitration?

JULIA GILLARD: I did that yesterday so I agree with Mr Masson. That’s exactly what we should be doing as a government and I did that yesterday in a public statement, I’ve done it on AM which you’ve just played and I am happy to do it again.

STEVE CANNANE: But when we say there is a difference between you saying ‘I don’t approve of the behaviour’ but are you able to force this to arbitration? Are you able to take a big stick to this issue?

JULIA GILLARD: The industrial umpire has to deal with it and Mr Masson made that point himself, what he’s asking the Federal Government to do is to clearly say to the workers involved that they must obey the rule of law and they must respect and obey the orders of the industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia.

I said that yesterday, I’ve said it publically this morning and I am happy to say it again as Deputy Prime Minister, as a representative of the Rudd Government, we have no tolerance at all for breaching industrial laws and breaching orders of Fair Work Australia. This industrial action that is being taken now is not lawful, the people involved are exposing themselves to thousands of dollars of fines and penalties, they need to sit down, have a think and get back to work.

STEVE CANNANE: Those workers are listening to you this morning and particularly phrases like no tolerance of such thing; we could argue that it’s easy to use tough rhetoric about language here, but beyond that sort of general statement go back to work or you could face problems, it seems that people are asking more of you. Can you do more?

JULIA GILLARD: This is a matter for the independent industrial umpire. The independent industrial umpire has issued orders to get people back to work, if they breach those orders then that is a matter that gets dealt with by the Federal Court. Obviously the Federal Court is independent of government and an independent judge will deal with the issue.
STEVE CANNANE: But it’s also a test of Fair Work Australia because the employers are saying that if those workers continue to defy the order of Fair Work Australia well then it sort of begs the question how relevant and affective is this independent umpire if its findings are ignored?
JULIA GILLARD: Well with respect, if we look back on industrial relations history in this country, we’ve seen these issues from time to time, this has happened before. Obviously Fair Work Australia as the independent umpire issues orders and if orders are breached, then people can be fined. That’s the system and my message to employees engaged in this conduct is they must get back to work.

STEVE CANNANE: We’ve spoken to some of those workers, in fact they were ringing us this morning and have asked you to come and talk to them. They said they voted for you and Mr Rudd and they won’t be voting for you again. They feel unsupported. Do you have any interest in going and talking to them?

JULIA GILLARD: Look, I’m happy to say to anyone via your program, in person, in writing, any other way; no tolerance for unprotected industrial action. This industrial action is not in accordance with the law. People have an obligation to go to work, to do the right thing, to do all of the things that their job requires of them and these individuals need to go and do just that.

STEVE CANNANE: Is there a real possibility that some of these workers could go to jail? I know that’s always the threat and that always seems the threat of somewhere down the line, but is it possible they could?

JULIA GILLARD: The industrial system obviously works on orders and getting people to abide by those orders. The principal sanction if someone breaches an order is that they face penalties and fines, that is they will be very, very, very substantially out of pocket.

STEVE CANNANE: Does it pose a risk to our reputation internationally and risk the reputation of our resources sector if it continues for more than a few days?

JULIA GILLARD: What we’ve got here obviously is an industrial dispute. We’ve got an industrial dispute where our industrial umpire is there dealing with it, issuing orders, the system is working, the matter can now go to the Federal Court in terms of fines and penalties so that’s the system for dealing with and managing disputes.

Gillard’s stance on right of entry also exposes the service that social democracy offers to the ruling class. When the National Union of Workers and New South Wales’s Dunlop Foams reached agreement on a relatively favourable approach to the union’s right of entry, the manufacturing employers’ “union” the Australian Industry Group demanded action from Gillard. The deputy PM has a particularly close relationship with this group and sprang into action on their behalf by personally intervening to block the NUW-Dunlop agreement. Heaven forbid that a precedent be set that might flow on to the advantage of other unions and their members!

Interviewed again on Perth radio on 29 March, there was this exchange:

GEOFF HUTCHISON: You were at a breakfast speaking this morning and talking about industrial relations and I know recently you’ve been trying to make clear to the union movement that they won’t have easy access to work sites. What did you say this morning?

JULIA GILLARD: Well this morning I made it very clear that the rules are the rules. We put the Fair Work system into place because we think it gets the balance right. The Australian community didn’t want Work Choices. It had gone too far. Mr Abbott is obviously out there, very much enamoured with Work Choices and still arguing for it. I think the Australia community will reject it again.

But having got the system right with the Fair Work Act, they are the rules. And there are some individuals in this state, I believe, aren’t respecting the Fair Work Act and aren’t respecting the rules. We believe in tough compliance. Everybody has to respect the rules. Rights come with responsibilities and if you don’t acquit your responsibilities, then you should expect to feel the full force of the law.
The attacks on working people’s rights enshrined within social democratic nonsense about “getting the balance right” are as bad as anything that her Liberal predecessors served up.

There was some pulling back from the precipice, but because the Liberals were on the nose, the social democrats had to be given the task of breaking the resistance of the workers and bringing them back under the “full force” of ruling class “law”.

“Tough compliance” indeed, when you go around the country threatening to fine and jail workers with legitimate grievances and legitimate causes for action!

Only Nixon could go to China, and Gillard and Labor had to be brought in to continue what the Liberals had begun.

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