Abbott Extremism Reinvigorates Unions In A Day Of Nationwide Action


The Abbott Government’s extremism in a range of policy areas has allowed unions back onto the field after a short period in the sin bin.

Fears about industrial relations reform, a largely non-eventful royal commission into trade unions, and cuts to health and education funding are seen as the decisions of a Government which is ideologically driven and out of touch.

The pivot is fairness – and the political battle for the sensible centre is now well and truly on.

Six years of Labor Government and HSU scandals had the effect of pushing unions outside the perceived mainstream, but they are now increasingly being seen as an important handbrake on the excesses of Abbott and company.

The push back against WorkChoices played an enormous role in the Ruddslide election result of 2007, and the ACTU is once again trying to deal itself back into the game.

If Abbott’s first Budget wasn’t seen as so desperately unfair, any union campaign would have had far less leverage.

At the Government’s behest, the Productivity Commission is now preparing to consider the minimum wage, penalty rates and workplace flexibility.

This is fertile ground for the ACTU and its affiliate unions. Government ministers are on the back foot, particularly as the spectre of WorkChoices still hangs over their head.

So as the nation grapples with the modern political phenomenon of FIFO Governments – one term in, one term out – unions are gearing up for an almighty campaign reminiscent of 2007’s Your Rights at Work.

Tens of thousands of workers will march through Australian city centres as the union movement ramps up its attack on the Abbott government’s industrial relations agenda.

Last year’s March in March was criticized in the mainstream media for lacking a defined focus and outcomes.

It was followed up by Bust The Budget and others, for which the intent was obvious after the unforeseen announcements of a GP co-payment, deregulation of university fees and substantial changes to welfare and pensions.

The ACTU marches this time around will likely tap into a similar level of angst and antipathy towards the Government but the focus is clearly on the next federal election and 32 key marginal seats.

ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver and President Ged Kearney said this week: “Together we will fight for a country where workers’ rights are protected, where there is universal healthcare and education, where everyone enjoys a secure retirement and where everyone gets a fair go.
We will not accept Governments – State or Federal – attacking the living standards that were built by generations of union members.”

Employment Minister Eric Abetz is, unsurprisingly, not a fan.

“The ACTU should engage responsibly with these inquiries and not engage in campaigns of distraction,” he huffed this week.

What he misses is that despite his views of union motives, the fact is they are tapping into fundamental concerns in the population.

When your take home pay is threatened in an era of stagnant wage growth and increasing unemployment, this is the kind of thing that motivates people to get active.

The problem for Abetz and Prime Minister Tony Abbott is that few people believe them on jobs and industrial relations.

WorkChoices aside, there was also the fact that Abetz’s office last year got busted cooking the books on jobs figures in trying to match Tony Abbott’s vow to create one million jobs over the next five years.

And just this week, Abbott’s “absolutely crystal clear” guarantee made in June last year that contracted cleaners at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection would not lose any take-home pay after the scrapping of guidelines was proven to be false.

The low-paid workers are reportedly receiving $2 an hour less, even though both Abbott and Abetz said this would not happen.

The things the conservatives should fear the most from a union campaign is its capacity to tap into very genuine people power, and the fact they have money at their disposal.

You hear a lot about union membership declining in this country over recent decades, but there are still nearly two million members across the country.

That’s a lot of people to mobilise in a campaign. And they’re devastatingly effective in persuading if they are a paramedic, a fire fighter, or a nurse.

So when the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation calls on its members to turn up in force this Wednesday, this should send a shiver down LNP spines.

The ANMF is arguing hospital nurses generally work about 50 per cent of shifts as penalty shifts, and that a grade 2 nurse stands to lose $380 a week if the existing penalty rate system is scrapped.

Nurses plan to revive powerful tactics used in the run-up to last year’s Victorian state election of saturating marginal seats with frontline service union members, who talk directly to voters about political issues affecting their workplaces.

New Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is onboard the penalty rates campaign and you’d expect the same will be true for Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Australia’s newest premier received a rock star welcome when she appeared at an Australian Workers’ Union conference on Monday.

“What we have seen at a federal level is a national prime minister who is not listening to the will of the people. That will be his downfall,” she predicted.

Thirteen Coalition seats in Queensland would be lost if the recent state election results were replicated at a federal election – not just in and around Brisbane, but also regional seats such as Capricornia, Leichhardt and Flynn.

Add to that a concerted effort by unions in the Victorian target seats of Deakin, Corangamite, La Trobe and Dunkley, several seats in Western Sydney, Eden Monaro, Dobell, Robertson and Page in NSW, Hindmarsh and Boothby in South Australia and Braddon and Lyons in Tasmania. If these change hands, you’re talking about a change of Government.

No doubt the conservatives will fight back. They will continue to paint a picture of the ugly face of unionism – through both the royal commission and the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

But the current Senate this week knocked off the Government’s Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill, which would have added layers of complexity for ordinary people who choose to volunteer their time to their union or employer association.

Crossbench Senators Lambie, Lazarus, Muir and Wang – as well as Labor and the Greens – all voted against the bill.

We have the beginnings of another gargantuan battle of values – red vs blue, unions vs business. If they come out the losers, the Abbott Government will only have itself to blame for letting unions back into the game so soon.

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