‘Take it or leave it’ is not a choice – November 2005

The federal government has finally put out for scrutiny some of its proposed new workplace changes and unions were on the mark when they said the changes would be radical, draconian and loaded in favour of employers.

As we predicted, the proposed laws are heavily weighted towards individual contracts. In fact, they are designed to effectively kill off awards. Workers signing new AWAs will have to negotiate with employers for many conditions they already enjoy as a matter of course in awards.

Conditions such as public holidays, rest and meal breaks, annual leave loading and penalty rates will be up for grabs in individual contracts.

While workers can’t be forced onto an individual contract while they remain in their existing job, employers will be allowed to insist new staff sign AWAs.

Unions will have to hold secret ballots before a strike and will have no right of access to workplaces where all staff are on AWAs.

Even one of the government’s favorite economic rationalists, Professor Mark Wooden, has dismissed the new, dishonestly named WorkChoices as pork-barrelling for employers.

Wooden is contemptuous of John Howard’s claim that they are providing workers with a choice, dismissing it as ‘political speak’.

‘This is not much of a choice, given the government intends to continue to undermine awards, both through further restriction on the types of matters that can be considered in awards and through abolition of the no-disadvantage test,’ Wooden says.

‘The fear is that many employers will offer their workers individual agreements on a take-it-or-leave-it basis … and for new employees there may be no choice at all – signing an AWA could be made a condition of employment.’

Wooden’s voice can now be added to a growing list of church and community leaders, labour market economists, academics, business leaders, trade unionists, state premiers, Family First, the Democrats, the ALP, the Greens and even high-profile members of the Liberal and National parties who challenge the government’s arguments for change.

The most common refrain among these critics is that John Howard has failed to make the economic case for change. Rather, Howard revealed the real motives for the new laws in an address to the Liberal party room when he described the new workplace agenda as a Liberal Party article of faith.

That is, these changes are purely and simply about ideology: Liberal Party ideology.

That the government is prepared to spend $100 million of taxpayers’ money selling a policy described by the Prime Minister as a liberal party article of faith is a clear sign that people don’t want the new laws but will have them forced upon them.

The union movement will not lie down on this issue. We owe it to our members and their families to contest this outrageous and heartless attack on the hard-won rights and conditions of Australian workers.

On 15 November, NSW nurses will have an opportunity to join hundreds of thousands of other Australian workers in a National Day of Community Protest. It will be Australia’s biggest ever meeting of workers, linked across the country in a satellite broadcast using Sky Channel. The NSWNA has also arranged for it to be broadcast into a large number of NSW hospitals via the Rural Health Education Foundation network.

I urge you to take part and send the strongest possible message to the Howard government that nurses will not stand by and let our workplace conditions be smashed by these unjust and unjustified laws.