Howard outlaws industrial action

Howard’s IR plan lays out a minefield of booby traps and obstacles that makes industrial action almost impossible.

The Howard government’s IR changes are designed to cut out workers’ legal right to strike but give employers an almost unlimited freedom to lock out their employees, say legal experts.

Industrial action – to be legal – will require a convoluted, secret ballot of either union members run by the Australian Electoral Commission. Unions will have to pay 20% of the cost of the ballot.

Dr Chris Briggs, Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Economics and Business from the University of Sydney, says the new laws put massive obstacles in the way of workers who choose to take industrial action.

‘Unions will have to get “permission” from the IR Commission even to hold a membership ballot. If they get past the objections of legal counsel acting for employers, they must then apply to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) for a ballot. The AEC draws up a roll of eligible voters, collates names, posts ballot papers, waits for them to be returned and collates the results. Over 40% of eligible voters must vote and 50% of them must vote yes. Legal counsel for employers can challenge the result on the grounds of “irregularities”.

‘Workers can then finally take industrial action after giving a further three days’ notice. But if their action doesn’t conform to the precise wording of the ballot the lawyers can move in again.’

Briggs says that even after a group of workers finally navigates its way through this legal quagmire, the legalities are still not over.

‘Any significantly affected “third party” – any student, commuter, customer, patient, business – will be able to have a strike suspended.

‘The law is so open-ended that it’s difficult to think of a strike that would be unambiguously legal,’ he said.

Extra shackles for nurses

Essential services workers – including nurses – have additional shackles applied. The Minister for Workplace Relations Kevin Andrews will be handed an ‘essential services’ power, enabling him to declare strikes illegal if considered a threat to public welfare or to the economy.

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes says strike action is only ever considered by the Association as a last option when employers refuse to listen to reason.

‘Strikes have played an important and legitimate role in winning the pay and conditions nurses now enjoy. It is a right we have exercised responsibly and which the government now denies us,’ he said.

Government hands militant employers ‘a baseball bat’

In contrast, the new laws are very generous to employers who may lock out their employees in order to pressure them to sign individual contracts.

Notorious abuses of employer power – such as the lockout at the O’Connor abattoir in 2001 when 300 wor-kers were locked out by the employer for eight months until they signed AWAs that cut their pay by 25-30% – will be more prevalent under the new laws. A Federal Court judge described the O’Connor dispute as a ‘baseball bat lockout’.

‘Strikes have played an important and legitimate role in winning the pay and conditions nurses now enjoy. It is a right we have exercised responsibly and which the government now denies us.’

Industrial action was the last resort and it worked, says Karen

NUM Karen Fernance says the threat of industrial action over the lack of support services was the turning point which finally moved management at her hospital.

‘They weren’t listening. For five years, through the winter period, we had the same issue. They never dealt with it. We used all avenues to solve the issue like the reasonable workloads committee, management forums and nursing services meetings. We passed branch resolutions. But they put it in the too hard basket – they listened but no one acted.

‘We threatened stop work meetings out of sheer frustration. It was an on-the-floor issue in all the clinical departments.’

‘Although it was resolved in the commission the threat of industrial action was paramount to resolving the issue. It was the last resort to solve a long-standing problem. No one took it lightly.

‘I would feel powerless if that right was taken away. The clock would be turned back to the dark ages.

‘I voted for John Howard but I feel scared that the government is bringing down these sort of laws. They will encourage people like me to opt out of nursing.’

Strike key to ‘What’s a nurse worth?’ win

Months of rolling industrial action, culminating in a statewide strike, was the key to winning many of the decent conditions for NSW nurses in the What’s a nurse worth? campaign of 2002, says NSWNA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda. The threat and vote for strike action in May 2005 was what brought the state government to the table to agree to accept the NSW IR Commission‘s pay decision.

‘The 2002 strike was overwhelmingly supported by nurses. Sydney Town Hall was packed and overflowing. Nurses filled up the gallery. There were nurses with babies in the anteroom. Then on the march to Parliament there were wall-to-wall nurses.
‘It had widespread community support and it brought the government to its senses. It led to substantial pay increases which put nursing back on the map as a career. It brought to the community’s attention what our issues were.
‘Under the federal government’s new laws this wouldn’t be possible.’