Warning: Work Choices zombie on the move!

Greedy corporate bosses bring out the Work Choices zombie.

When Liberal leader Tony Abbott promised in the last federal election campaign that the notorious anti-worker “Work Choices” laws of the former Howard Liberal-National government was “dead, buried and cremated” very few people believed him.  This scepticism could soon be proved justified with an opinion poll-drubbed Gillard Labor government just one former trade union bureaucrat’s grubby scandal away from collapse.

Emboldened corporate bosses have ramped up their demands on the Gillard government to abandon the Fair Work Australia laws (Labor’s Work Choices Lite) and swing back to the Liberals’ individual contract-based Work Choices Strong. The allegedly dead, buried and cremated Work Choices is now rising like a zombie.

It began with retail sector bosses demanding their workers – already among the lowest paid – sacrifice their penalty rates and unfair dismissal rights. More recently Helen Ridout, the CEO of the Australian Industry Group, and former BHP Billiton chairman Don Argus, called for a return to individual contracts.

Never mind the fact that Australia’s corporations are enjoying a massive profit surge. In the three months to June, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported, company profits rose an average of 6.7% on a seasonally adjusted basis while wages and salaries rose just 2.3%.  Mining company profits led the charge rising a whopping 15.2% and all sectors, except manufacturing, saw profit rises. Even the retail sector – which has been grumbling that consumers have been shopping less because of fears of global recession and rising energy, water and housing costs – enjoyed a profit rise of 6.2%.

David Pope's portrait of Labor PM Julia Gillard as published in the Canberra Times.

Yet the greedy corporate bosses still want to put the boot into their workers. This insatiable greed (and the social and ecological vandalism that goes with it) is chronic under the capitalist system, a system gripped and distorted by a mindless drive for more profit. According to Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, 83% of the world’s wealth  now in the hands of the richest 10%, capital, concentrated as never before in history, demands a profit regardless of anything else.

The big question is whether the Australian trade union movement is ready to confront the return of Work Choices Strong. The Your Rights At Work campaign – which actually brought down the former Howard Liberal government – was shelved after Labor took office, even though the Labor government refused to fully repeal Howard’s anti-worker laws. Most union leaderships went back into the tamecat box under Labor and the movement has paid a terrible price. After rising during the period of the mass fight against Howard’s Work Choices, union membership has begun to fall again. According to the ABS, the proportion of employees who were trade union members in their main job decreased from 20% in August 2009 to 18% in August 2010. Shop floor organisation has weakened in many industries and many union leaderships are more discredited in the eyes of rank and file workers because they have excused or remained silent while the Labor government has implemented the corporate profits-first agenda.

There is no way out of this mess without the trade union movement breaking from the shackles of the Australian Labor Party and rebuilding itself as an independent and fighting voice of the working class.

Green Left Weekly campaigns for an independent, democratic and fighting trade union . Please make a contribution this week to the Green Left Fighting Fund. Donate online today. Or direct deposits can be made to Greenleft, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account No. 00901992. Otherwise, you can send a cheque or money order to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007 or phone in a donation through on the toll-free line at 1800 634 206 (within Australia).

The opinion polls as graphed by the Pollytics blog.

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