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Ben Schneiders
June 30, 2009

UNIONS expect a new era in industrial relations and a more conciliatory relationship with employers from tomorrow as they seek to take advantage of new laws that finally consign WorkChoices to history.

ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence said yesterday unions would seek to “strategically” take advantage of Labor’s Fair Work laws and the improved bargaining rights and protections provided to workers.

He said it was a good day for workers and unions would “exploit” the laws to the maximum.

Their introduction follows a long union-led campaign against WorkChoices that was regarded as an important factor in the election of the Rudd Government.

Mr Lawrence said unions would test important elements of the new laws such as the requirement that parties bargain in good faith.

Companies such as Cochlear, which he said had sought to bypass unions in talks, would be targeted.

Mr Lawrence said the ability of unions to grow would depend on how well they targeted particular industries and employers using the new laws. “New industrial legislation doesn’t mean unions automatically grow.”

Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry workplace relations head Alex Marriott said smaller businesses were likely to face the biggest challenges from the new laws.

She said the reintroduction of unfair dismissal laws for businesses with fewer than 100 staff would add to pressures and costs for business.

A recent poll conducted for the VECCI found that 70 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition that “small business employers need the ability to sack workers who are not pulling their weight”.

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union national secretary John Sutton said the new laws were a step forward in some areas but kept some of the restrictions on unions and bargaining from WorkChoices.

“The Fair Work Act and other pieces of industrial legislation fall short of the trade union movement’s legitimate expectations,” he said.

A government-funded program has offered $12.9 million to employer groups and unions to educate their members about the new laws. Most of the money is allocated to business groups, with about $2.5 million going to the ACTU.

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