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