Charter of Worker and Trade Union Rights

May 26, 2013
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There’s a group in Australia that’s been badly ripped off over the past 20 years. It’s this country’s 11 million workers, employed and unemployed—the majority of the population.

The wages share of the country’s wealth has fallen from 61% to 53.5% since 1983. If Australia’s workers had been able to maintain that 1983 share in 2004, we would have had $56 billion more in our pockets for 2003 alone.

That would have been $56 billion more to meet our basic needs for health, education for our children and leisure, and $56 billion less for luxury yachts, racehorses and waterfront real estate that drives inner-city housing way out of the reach of the working-class people who once lived there.

True, the total pie has expanded. And some of us have been able to maintain and even increase our standard of living. But more often than not the price has been more stressful, unsafe and unrewarding jobs, enforced overtime and double shifts—less hours for family and leisure.

We’re working harder. According to the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, 60% of Australians feel that their lives are a lot less secure than ten years ago. 30% of male workers are working more than 50 hours a week and more than half of them wish they could work less. 1.2 million workers in Australia feel they have to do unpaid overtime.

Women workers have been losing out most — 70% of part-time jobs are done by women and 45% of women’s jobs are part-time, up from 36.5% in 1986. The gap between men’s and women’s wages is widening: in the two years to May 2002 women’s wages increased by $33 as against $58 for men. Twenty years ago full-time pay for women was 86% of the male wage; now it’s 81%.

But despite this picture some workers — a minority — haven’t done too badly in recent years. Some examples:

  • Victorian construction workers won a 36-hour week against ferocious opposition from employers and government.
  • National Tertiary Education Union members at Sydney University won a landmark 36 weeks of paid maternity leave as part of their last enterprise agreement.
  • NSW teachers forced the Carr government to maintain funding for public education, and provide additional funding for their recent 12% pay increase.
  • In its Campaign 2000, the Victorian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union won a 15% wage increase over three years, as well as forcing the employers to grant better long service leave and decent income protection for injured workers. The campaign also won limits on the employment of casuals and contractors along with a single finishing date on agreements—protecting industry-wide bargaining. This was the best result for manufacturing and the AMWU in all of Australia.

These groups of workers have one thing in common. They belong to strong unions, which have put the defence of their members’ wages and conditions first and foremost, refusing to accept what the boss, the government and courts thought was their due.

They have refused to knuckle under to state and federal governments — ALP and Liberal — and as a result have been called every name under the sun and even had to face royal commissions into their alleged crimes.

These unions have also proven to workers in the industries they cover that there is a point to belonging to a union. They are among the few unions where membership has increased.

For example, under the new militant leadership of the Western Australian Maritime Union of Australia, union coverage at Patrick, Fremantle, has risen from 53% to 99%.

This confirms that the old saying "If you don't fight you lose" is as true as it ever was. The majority of union leaderships that have stopped fighting — because their ALP mates have been in government or because they never knew how — have carried on losing both conditions and members.

As a result the percentage of workers who belong to a union has more than halved over the past 20 years, from 48%  in 1984 to 23% today. Things are particularly bad among young workers —l ess than 15% of workers under 25 belong to a union.

Workers in this country urgently need to rebuild fighting, democratic unionism that abides by the principle: "Touch One, Touch All". Nothing else stands between us and low pay, speed-ups and stress at work, and victimisation and exploitation by the employer.

Socialist Alliance members are in the forefront of the struggle to rebuild Australia’s unions, active in their own unions and in building solidarity with all union struggles. As an organisation the Alliance acts in solidarity with those unions that are in the front line of the fight for wages and conditions, and is committed to increasing the membership, morale, organisation and fighting strength of the union movement.

Socialist Alliance unionists look to work with all unionists — ALP, Green or non-party — who share this goal. Our Charter of Worker and Trade Union Rights sums up our stance on the critical issues face.

When union members elect militant, democratic leaders they can make enormous steps forward. By throwing out the careerists and dead wood they can begin the job of turning the union into an organisation that’s strong enough to defend the interests of all its members against those of the employer.

But that’s still not enough because the strongest union in the world can only do so much. And in periods of recession it can do even less.

This means that working people and our unions can’t do without politics — our own, working-class, politics. We can’t defend our own interests if we just stick to "union issues", no matter how strongly we fight for them.

There’s a working-class point of view on every issue: we need to uncover it, debate it and organise to fight for it. And as we do this it pays remember these words of Peter Reith, John Howard’s former minister for industrial relations, in an address to a gathering of employers: "Never forget which side we’re on. We are on the side of making profits. We’re on the side of the people owning private capital."

Socialist Alliance has the same starting point, but from the other side of the fence. We never forget which side we’re on. We’re on the side of the working people — the vast majority — and our policies are aimed at defending their rights and interests. We’re against the system that is driven by private profit.

But there’s a problem. The party that working people have traditionally expected to advance their interests, the ALP, has let down its supporters time and time again. In fact it has been the ALP that has carried out most of the dirty work of imposing "economic rationalism" (permanent free kicks to big business).

It was Hawke, Keating and Co who deregulated the finance sector, cut wages through the Accord, flogged off public assets, gave huge gifts to big business and tried to crush militant unionism by deregistering unions. State Labor governments have been in the forefront of the attack on workers compensation.

Socialist Alliance was formed to build the working-class political alternative to the ALP. As steps along that road we argue for unions to take a stand on all political issues — from refugees to Aboriginal rights to Iraq, from alternative economic policy to women’s rights — and to organise publicly for pro-worker policies. In this we strive to revive the best traditions of Australian unionism, from the wharfies’ 1940s action in support of the Indonesian independence struggle to the NSW Builders Labourers Federation’s green bans of the 1970s.

The Alliance is taking every possible opportunity to initiate and host debate about how to rebuild an authentic political voice for working people within individual unions and across the movement as a whole. If you agree with the Socialist Alliance policies and approach, vote for us!

But most of all — get active! Join us in the exciting struggle to create that new party that working people in Australia need!

Jobs for all at a living wage

  • Legislate the minimum wage at around 60 per cent of average weekly earnings ($560 at the end of 2003).
  • Shorten the working week (without loss of pay) to spread around available work.
  • Stop privatisation and rebuild a modern, democratically managed public sector.

Repeal all anti-union laws, defend and extend the right to organise

  • Enact a workplace Bill of Rights that guarantees workers and unions the right to organise and protest. Full recognition of unions and union representatives.
  • Repeal the Workplace Relations Act, abolish Australian Workplace Agreements and Sections 45D and E of the Trade Practices Act.
  • Return to awards of general application and minimum standards.
  • Oppose the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill.
  • Oppose the Building Industry Taskforce and its interference in unions.
  • Guarantee the right of unions to cancel a bargaining period and begin a new one.
  • Oppose secret ballots on industrial action.
  • Oppose all attempts to outlaw or restrict pattern bargaining, protected industrial action, picketing and secondary boycotts.
  • Ban lockouts and the discriminatory sacking of union delegates.
  • Remove the prohibition on striking workers receiving unemployment benefit.
  • Oppose union liability to pay damages for industrial action.
  • Oppose court and government restrictions on who can stand in union elections.
  • Oppose government interference in the internal affairs of unions.

Make work and workers' entitlements secure

  • Place limits on the use of casuals, contractors, labour hire and part-time workers. Casuals to be made permanent after a fixed period.
  • That full-time workers have the right to convert to part-time work when they need to because of poor health or returning to work after childbirth.
  • Labour hire workers and casual workers not to receive lower wages and conditions than their permanent co-workers.
  • Legislate a definite proportion of apprentices to tradespeople according to industry/trade.
  • Compel companies to participate in funds that guarantee workers' entitlements.
  • Place workers at the top of the list of creditors in case of company bankruptcy.
  • Restore all workers' rights to civil action in the courts.

For a healthy, safe and secure workplace

  • Put serious penalties into industrial health and safety legislation.
  • Ensure full powers for health and safety representatives to close down unsafe and unhealthy sites.
  • Impose prison sentences on employers responsible for the deaths of workers.
  • Legislate full, unlimited, employer-funded injury, sick and disability pay.
  • Enforce full employer liability and responsibility for incurable industrial diseases (eg asbestosis, mesothelioma etc) and permanent injuries to workers.
  • End the attacks on workers' compensation and restore the rights to compensation that have been stripped away.
  • For retraining on full pay of workers in environmentally unsustainable industries.

For equality at work and an end to discrimination

  • Impose equal pay for work of equal or comparable worth.
  • End junior pay rates.
  • Legislate 12 months' parenting leave fully paid by employer contributions to a publicly managed scheme; the right to return to the same job without losing seniority; and generous paid leave to allow parents to take time off work to care for sick children and attend school activities.
  • Address the under-representation of women in traditionally male occupations with positive discrimination programs in hiring, training and access to university courses.
  • Campaign for the government and/or employers to provide free, 24-hour childcare and holiday care centres.
  • Return all stolen wages to Indigenous workers or their descendants.
  • Legislate a program of affirmative action aimed at breaking down the concentration of Indigenous Australians, migrants and refugees in the dirtiest, most repetitive and most dangerous jobs.
  • Impose heavy fines on employers who breach equal opportunity laws.
  • Make sexual and racial harassment in the workplace a punishable offence.
  • End the unequal workplace status of gays and lesbians.

For unity and solidarity among all workers

  • End union dobbing in of "illegal" workers to DIMIA and the federal police.
  • Fight for the unionisation of non-union and "illegal" workers and compel the employer to give them the full wage and entitlements. Oppose any identity card for migrant workers.
  • Fight for union rights everywhere, especially in those countries where unionism is illegal or under threat.
  • Promote international bargaining against multinational attempts to locate work where wages are lowest.
  • Build the strongest possible links with unions in other countries.