Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The surreal world of industrial relations under Kevin Rudd

Labor leader Kevin Rudd has walked away from his pledge to "rip up” the Coalition’s WorkChoices law, adopting much of it as Labor policy.

Declaring “no going back to the industrial culture of an earlier age” Mr Rudd promised yesterday to keep the national industrial relations powers the Coalition grabbed from the states, to outlaw industrial action without secret ballots, to make strike pay illegal, and to permit employers to unfairly dismiss workers during the early months of their employment.

The Labor leader retained his party’s pledge to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements and to restore minimum conditions including penalty rates, overtime and holiday pay.

The union movement professed to be pleased with the change. The ACTU President Sharan Burrow said it “showed Labor was ready for government” and offered voters “a clear choice”.

Mr Rudd told the Press Club his new stance would allow Australia to “go forward without throwing the fair go out the back door”.

Last year five Labor state governments challenged the Commonwealth’s takeover of industrial relations powers in the High Court and lost...

Mr Rudd said that while some in the labour movement wanted a Labor government to hand back industrial relations powers to the states, he would not be doing so.

“I reject that view because we must recognise that business is increasingly operating across state borders. Under Labor, whether your employees are in Bundaberg, Bright or Bunbury the same system of laws will apply,” the Labor leader said.

Federal Labor would work to create a single uniform, national industrial relations system for all private sector employers, either by taking over extra powers from the states or by working with them to harmonise regulations.

The NSW government immediately ruled out handing extra powers to a Labor federal government, but said it was prepared to discuss harmonisation.

State public sector and local government industrial relations would continue to be regulated by the states.

Mr Rudd promised to retain the provisions of WorkChoices that limit industrial action to a specified bargaining period and require a secret ballot before it can go ahead. As well, strike pay would remain illegal.

“Labor has never before required mandatory secret ballots to authorise the taking of industrial action. Labor’s new laws will require it. Industrial action comes at a cost to the economy. It therefore should not be without cost to those engaged in it,” Mr Rudd said.

Labor would restore protection against unfair dismissals, but would streamline the process drawing up a simpler “Fair Dismissals Code” in consultation with small business. Claims will need to be filed quickly – usually within 7 days – and no lawyers would be involved. If employer complied with the Code, the dismissal would be considered fair.

Unfair dismissal would be permitted during the first few months of employment. Firms employing fewer than 15 workers would be free to dismiss them for any reason during the first year, big businesses within the first six months.

The turnaround puts Mr Rudd at odds with positions previously taken by Labor and the union movement. His present industrial relations spokesperson Julia Gillard claimed in parliament in 1998 that allowing some employers to unfairly dismiss workers was “fundamentally bad public policy, shortsighted and ridiculous.” The ACTU President Sharan Burrow claimed in 2002 that it would be “unfair and discriminatory to remove the legal rights and job security of one class of workers simply because they have worked for a small business for less than 12 months”.

But Mr Rudd defended 12 and 6-month unfair dismissal windows saying that “employers take a while to sort out whether in fact, a person is appropriate to the needs of customers, whether they’ve got the right manner etc.”

“Will there be therefore, unfairness at the margin? I fully concede that, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”

Mr Rudd said that he expected his proposals to withstand any challenges at next week’s ALP National Conference.

“Obviously various members of the trade union movement will have reservations about this. Some have expressed those reservations to us. If that becomes a matter for dispute or dissention at National Conference, well, that’s what National conferences are for. We’re quite prepared to roll with that and see where it goes. But I’m pretty confident that the outcome will be okay.”

The ACTU cautiously welcomed the new stance on unfair dismissals. Its president Sharan Burrow said she was “of course waiting for the details but this is a good start.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry also said it was too soon to pass judgment. “Critical issues such as whether Labor will increase mandatory employment conditions on employers, or compulsory arbitration, or union powers of entry into businesses have not been explained,” its chief executive Peter Hendy said.