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Union leaders unveil new agenda

By Stephen Long and Chelsey Martin,
Australian Financial Review, Tuesday 27 June 2000

The ACTU's new leadership yesterday unveiled a radical policy agenda that shifts the union movement sharply to the Left through hard-line opposition to free trade, demands for new collective bargaining rights and support for industry-level caps on working hours.

At the triennial meeting of its supreme policy-making body, the incoming ACTU secretary, Mr Greg Combet, also signalled a more distant relationship with the Australian Labor Party.

He unequivocally rejected an accord with a future federal Labor government, saying unions had to maintain a strong independent voice for working people - even if it led to serious differences with Labor.

The policies outlined by Mr Combet and ACTU president Ms Sharan Burrow included:

A freeze on further tarrif reductions and a fair trade not free trade approach that would require Australia to support core labour standards and environmental standards in multilateral trade forums and penalise countries that failed to meet those standards through social tariffs.

Stronger rights to collective bargaining through legislation that would force employers to negotiate with unions for collective agreements if this was the wish of most workers.

A 48-hour cap on weekly working hours to be pursued at industry and workplace level through collective bargaining, plus restrictions where appropriate on paid overtime and a broadening of the campaign for a 36-hour week.

A substantial increase in award pay rates to raise award wages to market levels, particularly in low-wage industries.

Restrictions on the use of casual labour, which would ensure that long-term casual employees convert to permanent employment and had access to all standard leave entitlements, including maternity leave and long-service leave.

The 700-member congress endorsed a charter of workplace delegates' rights as its first resolution, symbolising the emphasis on workplace-level activism under the ACTU's new organising strategy.

The congress marked a sea-change in style for the ACTU after the departure of long-standing secretary Mr Bill Kelty, who was close to key business leaders and identified strongly with the Hawke-Keating Labor administrations.

The new leadership, headed for the first time in the modern era by two left-wing officials, sought to reassert the union movement's role as guardians of social justice.

Ms Burrow opened the congress with a strident political speech, condemning rising inequality and the obscenity of salary packages of CEOs earning millions in salary packages and share options.

Consider a picture of Australia in the year 2000, she said. The top 20 per cent or the wealthiest Australians receive 48 per cent of the gross weekly income, while the lowest 20 per cent receive only 3.8 per cent. Average incomes for those at the top rose by six times more than for those at the bottom.

There is a widening gap between rich and poor, between regions and between social groups, Mr Combet said. At the end of the most sustained period of economic growth since the postwar boom, there are more low-income households than ever before, as well as more high-income households. The middle class is shrinking.

Mr Combet said the ACTU's industrial priorities were gaining enforceable rights to collectively bargain, new rights for casual employees - who comprise 27 per cent of the labour force - and negotiating caps on working hours.

First and foremost is the need to guarantee the right to collectively bargain, he said. Under [Workplace Relations Minister] Peter Reith's laws, the employer gets to choose the form of bargaining.

Even if the entire workforce wants to bargain collectively through their union, the employer does not have a legal obligation to do so.

Mr Combet signalled that unions would be looking to lift rates for low-paid workers by strengthening the award system, arguing that many low-paid employees were employed in service industries unsuited to enterprise bargaining.

The Federal Government yesterday attacked the Opposition over plans to shift bans on secondary boycotts away from the Trade Practices Act, Mr Reith describing Labor's industrial relations strategy as very regressive.