Reuters | Thu May 28, 2009
Unions to flex muscle with Australia’s Labor govt
By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, May 28 (Reuters) — Australia’s powerful trade union movement, the grassroots of the country’s Labor government, will pressure Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to ease curbs on pay disputes and strikes imposed by the previous conservative government.
Unions will also urge Rudd’s Labor government at a national conference next week to end future free trade deals and give local firms a price advantage when bidding for government contracts, Australia’s top union boss Sharan Burrow said.
Junior government minister Bill Shorten, ex-national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, said while unions had a right to stake claims, the government’s priorities would be to make work laws in the national interest as Australia slides into recession.
"I don’t anticipate any further industrial reforms any time soon," Shorten told local television.
Australia has overturned its 1970s reputation as a strike-prone country, with days lost to industrial disputes at record lows. An average person does six hours unpaid work a week over the standard 38 hour week.
Only one-in-five Australian workers, or 1.7 million people, are members of trade unions, with union membership falling five percent last year. In the private sector, only 14 percent of workers are union members.
Rudd, who pledged to govern as an economic conservative, has wound back workplace laws and union restrictions championed by the conservatives until their late 2007 election defeat, in part caused by worker unease over the impact of the reforms.
Laws passed by the parliament in March under the Fair Work Act restored some union rights to enter a workplace and negotiate employment conditions on behalf of workers, while returning worker rights to sue for unfair dismissal if they are sacked.
But the Australian Council of Trade Unions congress next week, held every three years, would try to force employers to pay workers for time spent on union activities, while repealing penalties for strike action, ACTU President Burrow said.
"We will always stand up for improving the law and those debates will be robust," Burrow told reporters.
Unions would also consider a campaign pushing for Australia’s minimum wage to be lifted to A$600 ($471.7) a week within two years, after the country emerges from a recession expected to see joblessness near double to 1 million by next year.
The congress would also see calls for an end to future free trade negotiations as Australia negotiates pacts with Southeast Asia and China, while pushing for a global deal under the so-called Doha round of free trade talks, Burrow said.
Australia has seen few recent strikes, but Burrow warned of a possible confrontation with Rudd at Labor’s flagship national conference in August over coercive powers in the building industry, which allow workers to be questioned on labour issues by an industry oversight body.
Labor’s biennial conference will be the first since Rudd’s 2007 victory and a confrontation with massed union leaders would be embarrassing for the government and could force more employment policy changes. ($1=A$1.27) (Editing by Valerie Lee)