Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Happy May Day – I hope

If you come from a unionist, left-wing tradition or personal history as I do, May Day holds much in the way of a celebration of successes, sentimentality at things past and lost, and hopefully a promise of more to gain. It is a day for workers around the world to observe a day of rest, struggle or celebration to note what has been won, lost or fought for in workers rights. And to wave about their red flags. Tonight's news will quite likely feature footage of a fair number of worker and activist rallies across Europe and South America.

In Australia under Howard's WorkChoices, workers and trade unions may think that the industrial relations environment couldn't get much worse, and thus supporting the ALP to form government at the next election may be the best thing – for working families, as they say. Considering how bad things have been under Howard, it is hard to not share that attitude.

This May Day, however, it is difficult to digest the extent of this desperation – that not two days ago the ALP National Conference supported Kevin Rudd's changes to ALP IR policy, including attacks on workers' right to strike. Under Rudd's policy, workers will be forced to hold a secret ballot before any strike action can be called. This effectively stymies workers' capacity to take advantage of timing or the momentum in a struggle or 'dispute', and hamstrings their ability to take urgent action. It gives management the upper hand.

Rudd's policy overturns significant ALP policy:
The right to strike did not exist in Australian law until 1993, when the Keating government introduced enterprise bargaining. But unionists have long claimed such a right as crucial, and Australia is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation convention that recognises a universal right to strike.
As a centrist, or a conservative by any other name, Rudd has taken great pains to court the business end of town and reassure them that an ALP government would be pro-industry. To secure any chance of governing, the ALP believes it must appease business. The threat of a business backlash is the last thing Rudd wants or needs. By attacking workers' right to strike, The Age suggests that Rudd is aiming "for the middle ground on the crucial election issue of industrial relations."

As Michelle Grattan wrote in The Age a couple of weeks ago,
Kevin Rudd's industrial relations policy tries to juggle Labor's union backers, voters alienated by the harsher aspects of WorkChoices, and a business community that doesn't want a backward step. He's promising workers this will be a fairer, gentler system, while telling business and economic pundits that union clout won't be wrecking the economy.

Inevitably, neither unions nor business will be satisfied.
I wonder if the union movement feels whether they have much to celebrate today.

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