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The Falsehoods Behind The Union Offensive

The Age - 18 February 2000

The sour note on which Bill Kelty departed the ACTU, along with the long foreshadowing of the departure of President Jennie George, confirms that new ACTU Secretary, Greg Combet, has effectively been running the show for some time. It will be recalled that he cut his teeth in the 1998 waterfront dispute and established something of a reputation there as a strategist. Close followers of the industrial scene detect that Combet's steadily increasing hold on the ACTU reins has coincided with the development of another carefully planned union strategy.

Once it became clear that the Senate would reject further reforms in workplace relations legislation the strategy apparently went into full action mode. Importantly, the rejected reforms would have tightened Section 127 of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and provided much better protection for employers against union exploitation of the right to strike once a bargaining period is declared. They would also have made it difficult for unions to bargain on an industry-wide basis.

This failure to achieve further reform has provided the ACTU with the opportunity to attempt to reverse or at least halt the trend towards enterprise and individual bargaining by sponsoring a campaign for industry wide bargaining concentrated in Victoria. The decision to focus on Victoria mainly reflects the fact that it is the home of the union movement and the industrial relations club, including the panel of Federal Court judges that specialises in industrial relations issues and that comprises many ex-union barristers. But the union movement also envisaged that a new State Labor Government, particularly one whose Ministers include many ex-trade unionists, would find it difficult to adopt a tough line against what unions would present publicly as legitimate bargaining.

Against this background, it is pertinent to assess some of the publicly expressed views of Greg Combet and how he may be attempting to attract sympathy to the union case through the media. For example, in the Financial Review of 15 February Combet suggested that it is necessary to "see what are the fair and reasonable standards" that should apply in the context of an economy achieving improving rates of growth and productivity. Continuing the ACTU campaign started last year on job insecurity and reasonable hours of work, he argued that "this should not mean great insecurity for people, more casual jobs and less permanent jobs".

This theme has undoubted appeal at a time when unemployment remains high despite the strong economic recovery. Implicit is the notion that, while we should continue to advance on the economic front, that has already involved a lowering of standards for workers which should not be allowed to continue. In this way the unions seek to establish public support for their campaign.

Closer examination, however, suggests that there is little substance in the Combet thesis. Many contra points can be made

  • Job insecurity as measured by the average duration of jobs has not increased in Australia since the early 1980s and less regulated labour markets overseas have slightly longer average job durations;

        Perceptions that job insecurity has increased derive importantly from stories about "down-sizings" that overlook the many new additions to employment. In Australia, the Morgan Survey which has been conducted since 1975 shows that only in the recession of the early 1990s has the proportion regarding their job as safe dropped below 70 per cent ;

        While the proportion of employees classified as "casual" increased from 19 to 27 per cent between 1988 and 1998, "casual" is normally defined, rather misleadingly, as those who do not receive both sick and holiday pay. This includes not only self-employed but also those who have permanent jobs and have simply "cashed out" their leave entitlements;

        Average working hours continue to decline naturally. Proposals to increase employment by limiting working hours wrongly assume perfect exchangeability between employed and unemployed and could actually worsen unemployment ;

        Those who work long hours and/or unpaid overtime are predominantly (over 70 per cent) in managerial or professional positions. The number working unpaid overtime has actually decreased in recent years;

        Although over 20 per cent now work more than 49 hours per week (up from 17 per cent in 1978), 74 per cent are satisfied with their working hours or want to work longer hours. Those who would prefer to work less per week are mostly in professional/ managerial positions or self-employed and many of those are reducing the length of their working lives;

        Major changes in the structure of "industry" and consequent changes in the kinds of work performed, including a major reduction in physical labour and the stress from that ;

        Health generally continues to improve as does life expectancy.

The move to enterprise and individual bargaining, started by Labor in 1993, needs to continue if improvements in productivity and growth are to be sustained. The public should not be fooled by the Combet strategy into accepting the union line that, as this is undermining working standards, the system must revert to old style union-employer bargaining that proved so damaging in the past.