Prepare For A Fair Work Showdown

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Victorian teachers are on strike today. The Australian Education Union estimates that 172 schools will be closed; tens of thousands of teachers are rallying at a Melbourne sporting arena instead of going to school. Needless to say, it’s a major disruption to Victoria’s education system.

The Victorian government is so incensed by the strike that it has been contacting retired principals to see if they can come in and keep schools open. Labor’s Steve Herbert calls that tactic "strike-breaking".

The teachers are striking over a pay dispute which stretches back to an election promise by Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu. Baillieu had promised to make Victorian chalkies the "best paid teachers in Australia".

After his surprise victory over John Brumby in 2010, the teachers union took him at his word and lodged a massive 30 per cent pay claim (over three years) — the amount they said would be required to bring Victorian teachers up to Western Australian levels.

Baillieu and his government baulked at the cost, instead offering 7.5 per cent over three years. While he was at it, Baillieu also enraged teachers by announcing a new performance pay system, under which "top-performing" teachers would be paid up to 10 per cent more.

"We have a system that is broken whereby the best teacher in the school is paid the same as the worst teacher," Victoria’s Education Minister Martin Dixon told The Age today.

The union says that performance pay is divisive and actually leads to worse outcomes for students. Job insecurity is already a pressing issue in the teaching workforce, with around 8000 teachers, or 18 per cent of the total, working on fixed-term contracts rather than ongoing positions.

This means they have to apply for new jobs at the end of every year. It’s not a system designed to keep young teachers in the profession.

The strike today brings the issue of industrial relations into sharper relief. Ever since WorkChoices played a leading role in the downfall of the Howard government, industrial relations has been an issue that has lurked in the political depths.

After 2007, Labor set about diligently restoring union rights and re-regulating many aspects of Australia’s industrial relations system. The result was the Fair Work Act of 2009. In contrast, the Coalition played dead on the issue, reluctant to stir up any further animosity on an issue it knew was unlikely to benefit it.

But IR never really goes away in Australia, a country that elected one of the first worker’s parties to government in history. While Tony Abbott has been at pains to keep the issue off the political agenda — famously telling a radio shock jock in the 2010 election campaign that WorkChoices was "dead, buried and cremated" — the Coalition’s supporters in the business community have not felt so constrained.

In recent times, there has been a rising tide of complaint from captains of industry and their associated business lobbies about the supposedly "anti-business" nature of Labor’s Fair Work Act. Just on Tuesday night, for instance, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Peter Anderson was telling the ABC’s The Business that "the pendulum has swung back too far. There’s no doubt that the laws are out of kilter".

Notoriously anti-union Cochlear boss Chris Roberts chimed in, telling the ABC’s Andrew Robertson that "We need a vibrant environment for business … it’s disappointing when we end up with an environment that is anti-business."

In recent years, Cochlear has fought a bitter battle to keep unions out of its high-tech hearing aid factories, despite the fact that its workforce has voted for union representation several times.

The business media has also played its part, uncritically repeating the claims by Liberal parliamentarians and business leaders that Labor’s employment laws are damaging Australia’s productivity.

Unfortunately for the blowhards in the HR Nicholls Society, the data says exactly the opposite. As Greg Jericho pointed out in January, since the Fair Work Act was introduced in 2009, productivity growth has been at its highest level in a decade. Industrial disputes have been few. Labour costs are lower than under WorkChoices.

In fact, as Jericho observes, "productivity is just the excuse on which to hang every anti-union trope floating around". And there are plenty of purveyors of anti-union tropes out there.

A good example is the Australian Financial Review’s recently hired opinion columnist Grace Collier, a disgruntled ex-unionist who, when not attempting to illegally record conversations with union bosses with a bra microphone, can be found trotting out bizarre and unsupported conspiracy theories about the AWU non-scandal. Collier’s day job is currently as a strike-breaker at Australian Dismissal Services, a hardline industrial relations consultancy.

The low level media war against the Fair Work Act being prosecuted by the business lobby and their associated spear carriers suggests that industrial relations may not remain a sleeper issue for long.

While Tony Abbott and his brains trust will no doubt be trying to minimise the issue, the IR hawks on his backbench and amongst the Liberal Party’s support base will continue to lobby hard to revisit the issue. Indeed, the Coalition has an industrial relations policy in preparation, which, according to Michelle Grattan, will address issues of "flexibility, productivity and union militancy".

A policy heavy on issues like flexibility, productivity an union militancy sure sounds like a slightly watered down version of WorkChoices to me. You can bet that chief executives worrying about their next profit forecast will be campaigning hard behind the scenes for a scenario where they can more easily extract "efficiencies" from their workforce by, for example, stripping conditions or holding down pay rises.

In fact, according to most labour market economists, Australia’s workforce is already highly flexible. Our levels of casual, contract and freelance work are high by international standards.

Former Hawke government minister Brian Howe recently suggested that as many as 40 per cent of Australian workers are employed in insecure or precarious labour. "There is a new divide in the Australian economy," he said in a speech to the National Press Club last year. "It is not between the blue-collar and white-collar worker, but between those in the ‘core’ of the workforce and those on the ‘periphery’".

For the highly-skilled and highly remunerated, or even simply those covered by the Fair Work Act’s base legislation, there are mandatory protections such as sick leave, parental leave and the right to be represented by a union.

For those working in the netherworld of casual labour and independent contracting, there is far less protection. A shocking 15 per cent of casuals have worked in the same job for more than five years. Ask your local barista if she is working for cash, for instance. Chances are she will be; restaurants and cafes are notorious for paying workers "off the books". The ACTU says that 64 per cent (pdf) of employment in the hospitality industries is casual.

But the phenomenon is also growing in industries which used to offer a stable middle class job, including in education institutions such as TAFEs, schools and universities.

This brings us back to the striking teachers. One of the strangest disconnects in the current political debate is the theme, trumpeted by everyone from Julia Gillard to conservative state education ministers, that Australia needs to attract and retain high quality teachers for our schools.

The situation in many state education departments suggests the opposite is happening. A recent survey in Queensland, for instance, revealed that only a quarter of last year’s teaching graduates in Queensland received job offers. Of these, most were contract positions. Only ten per cent received an offer for a full time job.

Figures like this show the increasing inroads that the neoliberal mantra of "flexibility" are making into once stable professions. It’s a trend that the current government, despite its efforts to paint itself as a supporter of workplace security, has done little to arrest.

As Ross Gittins noted today in a typically perceptive article, the trend towards a more neoliberal society is eroding many of the social and relational aspects of our society. "With assurance as to their rightness and righteousness, our big business leaders promise us more jobs and greater prosperity if only we’ll see reason and give them freedom to do as they see fit and as soon as possible," he wrote.

If Labor is nimble enough, there is a kernel of a narrative here that might appeal to swinging voters currently so hostile to it. Julia Gillard was making halting steps towards just that this week when she flagged moves to enshrine the right to part time work for working parents.

But one suspects the government will be unable or unwilling to pivot wholeheartedly towards workplace issues in the run up to the federal election. That sets the scene for the IR hardliners to ride into battle on Tony Abbott’s coattails, should, as seems likely, he takes office on 15 September.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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