Burying the Workchoices bogeyman

Tuesday, 1 November 2011 

A politically weak government and the anti-union regime it brought in – it’s a winning combination for any employer of an essential service that wants to cut dead industrial action. Simply raise the stakes by shutting down operations and wait for the chaos – on the reasonable bet that sooner or later, the government will get the blame and have no choice but to use the punitive actions that, fortunately for this government, and Qantas, it has at hand in the Fair Work Australia regime.

Fair Work Australia was the counterpoint to Howard’s Workchoices, but based on the same premise, namely that the union movement was no longer a significant force on the industrial relations scene. Whereas Howard’s solution was to turn the whole game over to employers and individual contracts, the FWA was more about providing a centralised framework to oversee and manage conflict between employers and the unions. It was decisively weighted towards employers, but the hope was that, given the emasculated state of the union movement, its powers would rarely need to be called upon. It was why it could encompass what had been a strict division between arbitration and judicial functions that had defined the shape of industrial relations framework for the last half century, on the basis that it was unlikely ever to be tested.

But while it was designed to allow for the weak state of the union movement, Labor did not allow for what would happen when an employer would take advantage of a weak government. The Qantas pilots action was typical of the state of industrial relations today: a combination of symbolic gestures (those red ties), long-running low level action that never brought anything to a head, all combined with a strong consumer angle on safety. It’s a line that now management has escalated it from their side, supporters of Qantas employees have kept up, talking ominously of the “brand damage” to the airline from the shutdown – as though a company couldn’t rebuild its brand with a few price offers or better service on the back of a staff now likely, with help of Labor’s FWA, to get paid less.

When pilots went on strike just over 20 years ago, it was a test case for Hawke’s accord. Hawke jumped at the opportunity to use a relative lack of sympathy for what were well-paid pilots as a means of making a political example of them for the benefit of any other unions that was thinking of stepping out of line. At the time the dispute divided the left not sure whether to support workers on strike, or let an especially well-paid segment of it swing in the breeze – so summing up the political astuteness that effectively did the same for all employees over that decade.

Gillard, in contrast, has been notably more reluctant to assert Labor’s current anti-union powers, despite the far greater leeway she now has to do the same. Whereas Hawke had a political rationale to make an example of the airline pilots, the accord, Gillard does not. In fact it has been politically convenient for Labor, along with its supporters in the commentary, to play up the evils of the Coalition’s Workchoices bogeyman. Indeed even on the weekend, Gillard could only confront Abbott’s criticisms by saying that Abbott was only just wanting to bring Workchoices back.

But of course Abbott was saying no such thing. Indeed it is striking that his main charge against Gillard was that she was not using the powers of the FWA early enough, powers that until now the Coalition had, at least formally, been criticising. This support for a centralised Federal body marks a decisive change in Coalition attitude from the Workchoices position of leaving it to the employers to sort it out. Indeed, those getting restless at Abbott’s faltering ability to rescue the Coalition “brand” by calling for a return to some form of Workchoices like Reith (and Howard), have now been side-lined by the demonstrated effectiveness of Labor’s FWA to do the job even better on behalf of employers, so taking some of the pressure off Abbott.

As for Gillard and the government? She is being used by an employer and dragged into a dispute that is out of control and she is hardly politically well placed to manage that. Other employers must surely be taking note and no doubt wondering if they can also feed off the weak.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 1 November 2011.

Filed under Tactics

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5 responses to “Burying the Workchoices bogeyman”

  1. Michael on 1st November 2011 2:46 pm

    Interesting post. Whilst unions don’t have much influence anymore and consequently the ALP is losing it’s platform, the coalition doesn’t have much point to it’s platform of anti-unionism either. I don’t see much electoral appetite for further erosion of employee protection. The two things that have had the most influence on reducing union membership and power have been their long term success in improving working conditions and the end of longterm stable mass employment. Neither of those things mean that there isn’t concern in the electorate about IR issues. If the coalition tried to move strongly on this it would rediscover why it lost the 2007 election. I do agree that the current faultline between the ALP and the Coalition is getting pretty trivial.

  2. Riccardo on 1st November 2011 3:54 pm

    The paradigm is between contract law and statutory wage fixing – the paradox for left and right in this is that sometimes the natural preference for ‘means’ conflicts with the ‘end’.

    Right wingers would prefer a shift from labour to capital; yet sometimes the argy-bargy of the market produces the opposite result. Left wingers prefer government wage fixing; yet these means less role for unions and strikes and stuff.

    IR has always had paradoxes. You start on a job without an explicit signed contract. Your employer proposes reducing your pay. He can’t. Common law contract; nothing to do with the IR system since 1901. You sign a contract you are bound to it.

    This is one of the aspects of IR that has always embarrassed the Right. They had to go into Parliament to legislate to REMOVE the common law contract aspect of employment law; effectively have parliament side against the great majority whose main income is wages. No wonder they lost in 2007.

    The Left are also embarrassed as now (and hence politically weak). Governments setting wages imply fewer strikes and unions – yet the governing party who holds this view was set up by people whose raison d’etre was to have form unions and have strikes.

    The parties two-step is aimed at trying to hide these IR contradictions from the public. Incidents like this one with Qantas give some of the game away.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 1st November 2011 10:04 pm

    Michael, very much agree that the loss of union influence is a problem for the Coalition as well, since opposing it was core to their political DNA. That’s the real importance of Workchoices, namely that business didn’t need it.

    Polling indicated that IR and Workchoices was never a major issue for voters in the 2007 election as much as commentators claim. But Workchoices did expose that there was little content to Howard’s government once the War on Terror subsided.

  4. Alex White on 2nd November 2011 2:54 pm

    What polls showed that IR and Workchoices was “never a major issue” for voters in 2007? The polls I remember put Workchoices in the top three issues.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 2nd November 2011 10:57 pm

    Practically every poll of the time as I remember. Newspoll did qualitative polls showing that IR was never more than a middling issue at best in 2007, well below economy, national security, environment etc.

    The same polls show that IR did become more of an issue in 2005/6 but then started to fade at the end of the year to when Beazley was dumped – and Rudd began downplaying the issue. This was presumably because he was aware there was a double edge for Labor; it highlighted Howard’s “vindictive bitchiness” but also associated Labor too closely to the unions, which the Coalition played heavily on in 2007 while Rudd avoided those “Your Rights at Work” stalls like the plague.

    That Howard’s unpopularity 2007 was not due to Workchoices election didn’t fit the meme of some in the media at the time, so even when their own polls showed the same indifference, they ruthlessly stuck to the script that it was a vote killer – look at Grattan report on a poll showing that those for and against Workchoices were evenly split with 40% having no opinion, headlined “IR anger keeps Rudd on top”.

    Similarly a Fairfax report thought it “surprising” that their focus groups found that:

    the biggest single item of contention between Labor and the Government this term – the Government’s Work Choices reforms – did not figure prominently in the group discussions. John Stirton explains that this is partially due to the selection process for swinging voters, which tends to filter out people with pre-existing strong views on industrial reform.

    – but then never under-estimate the media to see Australian politics through the old left-right spectrum.

    This may contradict some of the postelection reports which suggested that Workchoices was a reason for switching votes, but I prefer Mumble’s explanation for the discrepancy, i.e. that people will look for whatever they see as justifying doing something that may have less tangible reasons. Certainly Workchoices did sum up the hollowness of Howard’s agenda.

    I remember at the time some very determined Labor supporters arguing that their own focus groups showed that Workchoices was a key vote changer. But I think we have become clearer since of Labor’s ability to read their own focus groups.

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