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2019 Federal Election Debrief: Where next for Australia’s unions and the ‘change the rules’ campaign’?

23rd May, 2019

An edited version of this post was published in The Conversation, 23 May 2019: ‘Where to now for unions and change the rules?’.

Well, very few people saw that coming: a Coalition win in Saturday’s election, with Labor now entering a period of soul-searching although probably avoiding a leadership contest.

If it was, as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten declared, ‘a referendum on wages’ then it follows that Australians are content with sluggish wages growth and don’t want a pay rise.

But that would be a great over-simplification. Labor had an ambitious program of workplace reform, part of a much wider agenda for economic change and wealth redistribution, that it simply couldn’t sell to the electorate.

Where does this leave the industrial wing of the labour movement, which pushed the ALP to adopt sweeping re-regulation of the labour market?

The ACTU’s ‘change the rules’ campaign over the last two years has been remarkable for its highlighting of key problems, like wage theft and insecure work, in public debate and community consciousness.

There seemed to be a deliberate strategy of repeating the main themes and examples of how the existing workplace rules are ‘broken’, feeding into headline proposals for changing the rules to advance the interests of workers and unions.

Very little detail was provided about the specific nature of the changes to the rules being advocated. Whether more or less detail should be provided about proposed policy reforms is now very much up for debate as Labor tries to work out what went wrong on Saturday.

Rather than playing a central role in implementing worker-friendly laws as they expected, the union movement will now be forced onto the defensive. Already business groups are weighing in, urging the Morrison Government to ‘simplify’ the industrial relations system and prevent casual workers from ‘double-dipping’ (obtaining a casual loading and leave entitlements).

Harvey Norman chief executive put it this way, perhaps revealing much about how he views his workforce: ‘The economy works best when all the little ants out there are left to get on and do great things’ (quoted in Australian Financial Review, 20 May 2019).

The Coalition did not advocate workplace law changes in the election campaign. It only has a mandate to implement the recommendations of the Migrant Workers Taskforce which it accepted back in March. Ironically, these are mostly worker-friendly measures to address systemic underpayment and other forms of exploitation.

However given the pressure that is already coming from the business community, don’t be too surprised if the Coalition dusts off some of the Productivity Commission’s 2015 proposals. These include ‘enterprise contracts’ that allow businesses to vary award terms, and changes to reduce the complexity of enterprise bargaining – relaxing the ‘better off overall test’ would be top of the list for many employers.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission and Registered Organisations Commission will remain in place as ‘cops on the beat’ to combat union power, probably with increased resources.

So what room is there for unions to get back on the offensive? In my view, plenty. The deep problems in our workplaces which ‘change the rules’ and Labor’s policies sought to address have not gone away.

We still have a culture of wage theft in many sectors of the economy. We still have a proliferation of dodgy labour hire contractors. We still have misuse of the labour hire business model at companies like Amazon, with many workers trapped in long-term casual engagement. We still have widespread use of rolling fixed-term contracts.

We still have the collapse of collective bargaining in the private sector, and employer ‘work-arounds’ to avoid negotiating an enterprise agreement or get out of an existing one. We still don’t have the basis for a real living wage.

Sally McManus has already been clear that the union movement ‘will never give up … we will never stop fighting for fairness for working people’ (Twitter, 18 May 2018). That said, the ACTU will no doubt revisit the change the rules campaign and its accompanying communications and electoral strategies.

Rather than shrinking back to a ‘small target’ strategy, as is now being contemplated in other policy areas, I reckon the ACTU should remain bold in its reform ambitions.

But it should make a more substantive case for ‘changing the rules’ with strong underlying research that precisely measures the nature of the current problems (such as the nature and incidence of ‘insecure work’, a concept that business groups constantly debunk in the media).

A clearer articulation of how the rules should be changed is also needed, with a direct loop back to what these changes mean for voters and how their working lives would be improved as a result.

And of course, campaigning for legal changes can only be one part of the unions’ play-book. Organising and connecting with workers on the ground in new and innovative ways are also essential, as shown by United Voice’s ‘Hospo Voice’ initiative and both the Young Workers Centre and Migrant Workers Centre at Victorian Trades Hall Council.

As the National Union of Workers and United Voice put it in the context of their current amalgamation proposal: ‘We need to change the rules, but we also need to change the game.’

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