With Labor’s national conference just three weeks away, the unions are ramping up their campaign for a radical rewriting of Australia’s workplace laws – including an extension of industry-wide bargaining across the nation’s economy.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions held the last of its national Change the Rules rallies in Brisbane last week, and on Sunday celebrated Labor’s landslide Victorian election win, after union activists descended on key electorates with the message that “Australia needs a pay rise”.
The ACTU has also ploughed millions of dollars into a WorkChoices-style advertising campaign designed to tap into voters’ anxiety about insecure work and low wage growth.
The union peak body wants Labor to change the legislation to allow workers to strike across entire industries, giving them more power to bargain with employers.
Current laws only allow protected industrial action to take place in the context of enterprise bargaining negotiations with a single employer.
Employer groups say the move would spell disaster for Australia’s economy, while Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer has said if Labor gave into the ACTU’s demands it would usher in a new era of “mass union militancy”, “workplace division and disruption” while crippling small businesses.
Asked if the unions were “going to have to be reined back a bit”, Mr O’Connor said that while Labor was engaging with both unions and employers about “what the future IR framework should be”, the party was focussed on a need to restore wage growth.
“We need to make sure that the framework is reset because clearly, workers are not getting a fair share of the dividend of economic growth,” he said.
“The governor of the Reserve Bank made clear that wages are flatlining, so what we believe we need to do is ensure that the balance is reset to restore power.”
He pointed to a decline in the number of enterprise bargaining agreements being struck and “a greater reliance on minimum conditions of employment”.
“So we need to explore what other avenues are needed to enable workers to be empowered to get decent outcomes, and in keeping with that, we’re looking at multi-employer bargaining as part of the options.”
The latest wage growth data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, released this month, revealed that hourly pay rates had increased 2.3 per cent nationally over the past 12 months, marking the highest annual growth rate in three years.
But the ACTU says the rise, which the government described as proof wages were moving “in the right direction”, was insufficient to keep up with the cost of living.
Mr O’Connor also highlighted Labor’s promise to restore Sunday penalty rates if elected and crack down on labour hire companies to ensure that their workers are not underpaid.
He said the party would “have more to say” about how it planned to lift wages before the election, which is due by May next year.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has also promised a review of the Newstart allowance, which the Australian Council of Social Service wants increased by $75 a week.
Dana is a federal politics reporter, covering health and industrial relations. Previously, she was a reporter for The Australian.
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