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Speech on Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022

On November 9, I spoke to the government's IR bill, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022, about giving workers back the right to strike.

Mr CHANDLER-MATHER (Griffith) (10:10): There are absolutely elements of this bill that the Greens support. In particular, anything that increases wages is fantastic. The scrapping of the pay secrecy clauses is a good thing and something the Greens have been fighting for, for a long time. But I find it deeply ironic to listen to so many members of the Labor Party talk about the need to change the Fair Work Act and spend so much time attacking the Liberals for suppressing wages over the last 10 years, when so much of the legal architecture of the Fair Work Act was written by the Labor Party.

Government members interjecting—

Mr CHANDLER-MATHER: You can check your own history. The foundations of enterprise bargaining, the foundations of restricting the right to strike, the foundations of collapsing trade union membership in this country, lie in the accord. Again, rather than yelling at me about all of this, check your own history. The foundations of the accord, in the 1990s and 1980s, were pretty simple. Wages were increasing faster than the rate of inflation, and one of the solutions was to subordinate industrial strength to the interests of the Labor Party and the national interest, which was more in the interests of big corporations than it was in the interests of workers.

Mr CHANDLER-MATHER: Thank you, Deputy Speaker; they're very upset. And so they should be, because the history of that is disgraceful. Introducing enterprise bargaining isolated and crushed unions' abilities to fight for higher wages and better conditions. In fact, any union that fought against the principles of the accord, which included getting unions to agree to not push for wage increases above the rate of inflation in exchange for a social wage, many elements of which never came, including higher taxes on big corporations and expanding the welfare state—huge gaps were left in the Australian welfare state as a result. And here's what we saw: a collapse in trade union membership from over 50 per cent in the 1980s and 1990s to 14 per cent now.

If you look at the days lost to industrial action, it is a small—tiny—fraction compared to what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. You talk about moving towards multisector bargaining. You talk about—

Government members interjecting—

Mr CHANDLER-MATHER: It was you guys that got rid of it, with enterprise bargaining. What's disgraceful about this is it hollowed out the capacity for the trade union movement to fight for better wages and conditions—and not just better wages. It was the metalworkers union in the 1980s that was attempting to use industry-wide bargaining to reduce the working week to 35 hours a week. They lost that capacity when the accord came through, and so much of the legal architecture of the Fair Work Act restricted unions' abilities to fight for anything. As a result, the strategy seemed to be that we weren't no longer going to get increases in wages and conditions as a result of industrial strength but that it was going to come via the Labor Party. What an absolute betrayal that was of the trade union movement.

One of the key elements of trade unions' abilities to organise in the workplace is having a basic right to strike. This bill does not bring a right to strike before parliament. The only way trade unions can strike now is by very prescribed and specific parts of the enterprise bargaining agreement. This means that outside of those negotiations on the enterprise bargaining agreement, when it expires, they have to apply first to the Fair Work Commission. If they get a ballot up and it's successful, they potentially get forced to conciliation.

The rules around striking on multisector bargaining now require giving 120 hours notice to the employer, which effectively removes a lot of the power of strike action as you're telling them basically five days in advance. Not only that, it adds a whole bunch of extra hurdles. What's worse is that even if they were able to get a large industrial strength, even if they were able to build up their union membership and capacity for workers, collectively, to fight for each other, an employer can hold that and refuse to an agreement—and effectively give the Fair Work Commission the right to intervene. That means that, the way this bill is written, an employer can say, 'No, we're absolutely not going to agree to an agreement, no matter what the union asks for, and we're just going to hold out,' until, basically, as the rules state, the Fair Work Commission can step in and force them into arbitration. That effectively takes where workers' rights and conditions should be won, which is via industrial strength and their capacity to fight and work together for better wages and conditions, and drags it more and more into the realm of lawyers.

The problem with that is that you're not going to give workers a collective reason to join a trade union. What we've seen over the last 20 to 30 years in the collapse of trade union density—from over 50 per cent in the 1980s to 14 per cent now, and seven per cent in the private sector—is workers' loss of even the experience of wielding collective strength. Certainly, the message to a lot of trade union members out there is that, if you think it's going to be the Labor Party that hands you, say, a reduction in the working week or big wage increases above even the rate of inflation, you've absolutely got another think coming. What we've seen from the Labor Party time and time again in the history of Fair Work legislation, even after the Rudd government's election, is a betrayal of the demands of the trade union movement that at the very least deserve the right to strike.

Government members interjecting—

Mr CHANDLER-MATHER: Under your rules, if a group of workers want to go out and strike outside of enterprise bargaining agreements, they will—

Government members interjecting—

Mr CHANDLER-MATHER: And you point to the coalition! Great, you're in agreement. You're in absolute agreement about restricting workers' ability to fight for collective benefits. The number of workers I've talked to when out doorknocking who went through the accord period and felt absolutely betrayed by the Labor Party because they crushed trade unions' capacity to fight for themselves and they said, 'Don't worry, the Labor Party's going to do it all'—instead, what we saw from that period of reform was a collapse in trade union membership, a collapse in days lost to industrial action, a massive increase in the share of national income going to profits and a collapse in the share of national income going to wages. It was a massive transfer of power away from ordinary working people towards big business and corporations and, I suppose, effectively towards the Labor Party, who seem more interested in representing the interests of big corporations than they do in giving workers their basic right to strike and fight for better wages and conditions.

I do find it sort of amusing that we've got this confused debate in parliament right now where the coalition gets up and talks about the danger of the renewal of trade unions' strength. Any increase in trade union membership and the capacity for ordinary workers to fight for better wages and conditions is an excellent thing. But check the stats. Right now in every state, bar New South Wales, the number of days lost to industrial action has decreased. In fact, if you look at the charts, it's basically a small fraction of what it used to be—a tiny fraction. Trade membership is at 14 per cent. What are you afraid of? Seriously! Meanwhile, on the government side, you talk about giving wage increases. If you want wages to increase and conditions to get better, give workers their right to strike. Don't put giant fines in the way of workers going out and striking when they need to to fight for better wages and conditions.

The history of the accord and the history of the betrayal of hundreds of thousands if not millions of trade union members—for what? It was for a national interest that seemed to be more about increasing corporate profits and improving the electoral success of the Labor Party than it was about improving workers' wages and conditions.

Government members interjecting—

Mr CHANDLER-MATHER: You say, 'Is this about the Labor Party?' It is, because you're in government. You're in government. You could pass a bill right now that gave back to workers their right to strike. But you're not—much like with the gas industry, much like with big corporations and much like having a budget that forces ordinary working people to pay for an inflation crisis caused by big corporations such as gas corporations. The previous speaker talked about education. Well, why not fully fund public education and get it up to 100 per cent of the schooling resource standard by taxing big corporations such as gas corporations? But you don't, because ultimately, as happens so often in this place, we have both sides, the coalition and the government, acting broadly in the interests of big corporations and not in the interests of ordinary working people. If you did, you would give back to workers their right to strike. You would give them the capacity to organise solidarity strikes. Under this bill it is still illegal for workers to go out in solidarity with another group of workers. On top of all of that, despite not giving workers so many of the rights that they deserve, there is no increase in taxes on big corporations, no bringing dental into Medicare, none of the investment we need in public housing, and no full funding of public education or public health. Time and again, people out in the country are doing it tough and, rather than giving them the conditions, the money and the resources they need to live a good life, you continue to carry water for a corporate class in Australia that already has it so good, when so many people in your electorate are doing it tough.

Honourable members interjecting—

Mr CHANDLER-MATHER: You keep yelling at me about this, but the message is very clear. And if you think that what happened in Griffith can't happen in electorates across the country, then you can absolutely think again.

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