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Deborah Snow

May 19, 2012

Julia Gillard Photo MIchele MOssopTuesday 15th may 2012Julia Gillard speaks at the ACTU national conference in Sydney todaySeen here with ew ACTU secretary Dave Oliver (on her immediate right)Tale of humility … Julia Gillard with the newly-elected secretary of the ACTU, Dave Oliver, speaks at the congress in Sydney. Photo: Michele Mossop

Key players are trying to claim the high ground on industrial relations, writes Deborah Snow.

The politician, the union leader and the business boss all had a story of humble origins to tell this week. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking each was trying to out-humble the other.

The BHP kingpin, Jac Nasser, told the Institute of Company Directors that he was no class warrior, just the son of a simple Lebanese man who’d packed up his family to come and live all together ”in a single bedroom” in a house in outer Melbourne.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, trotted out for the ACTU congress in Sydney the tale, yet again, of her modest upbringing in Adelaide, the child of migrants who taught her to ”always, always, always carry your union membership card”.

And the newly-elected secretary of the ACTU, Dave Oliver, describing himself as a ”humble lift mechanic”, confessed astonishment that someone who’d started his working life as a 15-year-old apprentice, skateboarding to his first job, should have risen to the top of the union movement.

”Frankly, I’m amazed to be here today,” he told delegates to the triennial ACTU congress in Sydney – though, in fact, there was no surprise at all in the carefully-orchestrated elevation of Oliver, whose formidable campaigning skills are precisely why he has been put in the job.

The real point to all this faux-humility was the key players trying to stake out moral high ground as the industrial relations debate skidded off into talk of class warfare this week.

The Employment Minister, Bill Shorten, declared that ”we mustn’t let ourselves get fitted up – that somehow we are the class warriors. It has never been un-Australian to back-in the interests of the Australian working people”.

The head of the Transport Workers Union, Tony Sheldon, told union delegates Alan Joyce’s grounding of Qantas last year was a fine example of class warfare and that Nasser’s speech on Wednesday was evidence of ”that war being declared again”.

Nasser, in turn, told his audience of company directors that it was ”personally disappointing to me that part of this debate has become one based on class divisions”.

But he didn’t hold back in spelling out the mining conglomerate’s belief that the ”pendulum” had swung too far the unions’ way with Labor’s Fair Work Act, brought in by Gillard to replace John Howard’s reviled Work Choices.

Management had the right to ”run the business without the constant threat of a [union] veto over operational decision making”, he said, and the government’s current review of the Fair Work Act would be ”an opportunity to move the pendulum back to a more appropriate balance”.

If that didn’t happen, the company had the luxury of choice in deciding the ”geography” of where it might invest – a comment later interpreted by Sheldon as the threat of a ”capital strike”. Repudiating Nasser’s warnings, coalminers in Queensland are now positioning to launch mass strikes against the company.

BHP is not alone in its complaints. Major employer groupings such as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group have lodged extensive submissions with the Fair Work Act review team, outlining dozens of areas where they say union powers are too great.

Top of AiGroup’s concerns is the scope it says unions now have to bring issues into the bargaining process that were never part of it before.

”Prior to the Fair Work Act, there was a tighter test of what you could put into agreements,” says the group’s national industrial relations director, Steve Smith. ”[Now] the unions want to be able to bargain over absolutely everything.”

He denies rising employer agitation against the Fair Work Act is ideologically driven and says his grouping just wants it ”sensibly” amended rather than thrown out.

However, Oliver says employers are ”sniffing the political wind” and responding with increasing militancy. ”We are up for a discussion on productivity – always have been, always will be,” he told the Herald. ”But we will give as good as we get.”

The union movement, he says, will not back away from its declared intention this week to campaign strongly against the growing phenomenon of what it calls ”insecure work” – that is, casual work, workers on contract and workers living day-to-day on calls from labour hire firms.

Former Labor deputy prime minister Brian Howe told the union congress there was a growing gulf between those in the ”core” workforce and those on its ”periphery”.

Releasing a report commissioned by the ACTU, he said he’d found ”countless casual workers in low-paying industries like security, contract cleaning, call centres and childcare”, who had unstable hours and ”pay so low that many of them have to hold down two or three jobs to make ends meet”.

Insecure work affected up to 40 per cent of the workforce, he claimed – a figure disputed by employer groups, who say Howe’s estimates include more than 1 million independent contractors with zero desire to become employees.

It’s a battle that will ramp up in coming months, as the ACTU pledges to extend the campaign into the community, backed by Oliver’s determination to set up what he calls a ”permanent campaigning capacity” inside the union body.

Indeed, he made a candid admission this week that the union movement had made a strategic error in pulling back after the success of its anti-Work Choices campaign in 2007.

People back then, he told the congress, ”knew what we stood for – but sadly, it didn’t last”.

”We didn’t keep faith with that campaign after the 2007 election. We thought because we’d defeated one enemy, that we had won all the battles we needed to,” he said.

It’s a mistake Oliver is determined the union movement won’t repeat. Shorten, meanwhile, will receive the report of the Fair Work Act review team at the end of this month. Advance reviews suggest it’s unlikely to give employer groups the overhaul they want. And with an eye on his future ambitions, Shorten won’t want to take apart a piece of legislation so closely associated with the Prime Minister.

The ACTU congress wrapped up on a jovial note on Thursday. Organisers brought the architects of Labor’s 1980s accord with the unions – Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Bill Kelty – under the same roof for the conference dinner. Hawke belted out the union anthem Solidarity Forever. Delegates sang a ragged Happy Birthday for the outgoing ACTU secretary, Jeff Lawrence, who turned 60 on the congress’s final day.

But it was fighting words Oliver left delegates with at the end: ”No matter what they throw at us, no matter what the challenge, we never have and never will put up that white flag. Now it’s time to get back to work.”

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/battle-lines-drawn-for-the-fight-ahead-20120518-1yvjk.html#ixzz1vGk86zYH

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