2008 news wrap — the year WorkChoices died (but did it?)

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2008 news wrap — the year WorkChoices died (but did it?)

2008 was supposed be the year WorkChoices died but, by the end of the year, it was merely terminally ill — with some unions and the Greens accusing Labor of resuscitating it as ‘WorkChoices Lite’.

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2008 was supposed be the year WorkChoices died but, by the end of the year, it was merely terminally ill — with some unions and the Greens accusing Labor of resuscitating it as ‘WorkChoices Lite’.
 
Here’s an overview of the IR and employment related news highlights from 2008.
 
As the year unrolled, IR Minister Julia Gillard announced that AWAs could continue without limit for those workers and employers happy with them, the ABCC would not be downgraded, and only protected industrial action would be allowed.
 
Although 2008 ended with the world facing a global economic crisis, in Australia the year began with a massive resources boom and a critical shortage of skilled workers.
 
January
 
And it was even worse in Western Australia. In January it was no longer a skills shortage in Western Australia — there was now a full-on worker shortage and more than 80% of employers nation-wide were having difficulty recruiting workers.
 
However, the push for a national IR system was gathering force, with a NSW report recommending a uniform national industrial relations system for Australia by the beginning of 2010 — but one the states can opt out of, or join, in different ways.
 
February
 
In February, inflation was still a problem and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told unions they must agree to rein in excessive wage rises to help head off rising inflation and potential interest rate rises.
 
The failure of the Mitsubishi 380 family size car brought redundancies for more than 900 workers, but such was the state of the economy that they were swamped with job offers.
 
Labor introduced its first segment of the new IR laws, bringing in ITEAs to replace the outlawed new AWAs and said modernised new awards will protect overtime and penalty rates and set a benchmark for collective bargaining, and AWAs will not be offered to federal public servants.
 
The new legislation was welcomed by the employer group AiG which called it ‘balanced and workable’.
 
However, employers said they would rather have kept AWAs.
 
The Opposition showed it had still not come to terms with loss of government, at first sticking with AWAs, to Gillard’s glee, and then backing down.
 
The Government referred the matter of paid maternity leave to the productivity Commission, which was welcomed by Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.
 
Gillard said she was sure that awards could be modernised in such a way that neither employers nor employees were disadvantaged — a statement that bemused IR participants. (When 17 draft modernised awards were released on 19 December, both sides claimed to be disadvantaged.)
 
Senior Liberal Andrew Robb admitted that scrapping the no-disadvantage test for AWAs was what ‘killed’ the Howard Government at the last federal election, telling the ABC’s Insiders TV program that this showed the ‘Howard battlers’ that the government had ‘tuned out’ on them.
 
A precedent was set when Mitsubishi workers nearing retirement received the full redundancy package.
 
March
 
The draft National Employment Standards were released by the Federal Government.
 
The union that represents rugby league players applied to deregister itself, which one of its former heads, feared hard-man Kevin Ryan, described as ‘castrating themselves’.
 
Tasmania's State Health Minister Lara Giddings said bosses should encourage office workers to get off their chairs and walk around while at work to curb obesity.
 
The ACTU put in a bid for a $26 national wage rise, but employers said this was ‘economically risky’ and suggested a rise of $10–$13. The final figure of $21.66 a week was handed down in July.
 
Gillard released figures showing some workers had lost $500 a week on AWAs.
 
The Federal Government’s transitional IR legislation passed both Houses of Parliament and the making of new AWAs would soon be officially ‘dead’. It also brought in the no-disadvantage test and began the award modernisation process.
 
Retailer Myer introduced a six weeks paid-maternity-leave scheme for its permanent workers.
 
Award modernisation is ‘complicated, difficult and boring’ and the AIRC will have to be ‘ruthless’ in getting the process completed by the deadline of 31 December said Commission vice president Michael Lawler.
 
April
 
Aldi joined Myer in providing paid maternity leave for its staff, putting pressure on other retailers. Woolworths was next to fall in June.
 
Gillard admits pressure from the Australian mining industry — in particular the need for interim individual agreements (ITEAs) — were reflected in changes to the Federal Government’s transitional IR legislation.
 
The formal request is sent to the AIRC to begin the award modernisation process.
 
A new bid is launched to harmonise federal and state OHS laws.
 
Coalition IR spokeswoman Julie Bishop puts the case for abolishing all IR laws by saying the notion that there is unequal bargaining power in the workplace and that employers have upper hand is a fallacy.
 
A review of the 457 skilled-migrant visas is welcomed by unions.
 
The AMWU fought (unsuccessfully) to stop the ‘flexibility’ clause being inserted in the forthcoming modernised awards turning into de facto AWAs.
 
May
 
The increasingly bitter battle by unions to get rid of, or muzzle, the ABCC moved to a new level when a Victorian CFMEU official refused to be interrogated by the construction watchdog and, instead, faced a jail sentence. Subsequently, the charges were dropped.
 
Despite the highly-effective anti WorkChoices campaign run by the ACTU, it claimed the Rudd Government owed it no favours.
 
IR was a big winner in the May Federal Budget, but the Workplace Authority lost out.
 
And ‘bargaining in good faith’ turned out to mean you didn’t have to bargain at all — according to employers. And the Government agreed.
 
June
 
The ACTU wants employers to ‘top up’ any government paid maternity leave so workers get their normal salary. Employers are appalled.
 
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd releases the 10 Nationale Employment Standards. The standards include a 38-hour maximum working week, 12 months unpaid parental leave, four weeks annual leave, personal carer's leave and say that workers may be required to do ‘reasonable additional hours’ above the basic 38-hour week.
 
South Australian surgeons reject a 63% pay rise as being too low — $325,000 a year was not enough.
 
July
 
The skills shortage had become a national crisis, Kevin MacDonald, CEO of NSW Business Chamber, told a Sydney symposium. He said Australia was experiencing a net of loss of 750 people a week from its workforce.
 
Telstra decided it would no longer discuss an enterprise agreement with unions and, instead, would deal direct with its employees.
 
Gillard describes as ‘pretty depressing’ a report that sexual harassment is still rife in Australia.
 
Unions began to grow tired of the snails pace of IR reform, and the fact that much of WorkChoices continued to survive. One union said modern awards flexibility clauses were ‘worse than AWAs’.
 
However, Gillard said unions would have to cop Labor’s IR changes whether they liked them or not.
 
Gillard later hints that some sections of the new IR laws (such as unfair dismissals) could come in earlier than 1 January 2010. In September, that turns out to be the case.
 
September
 
Draft examples of modernised awards are released and outrage employers, who described them as a ‘disaster and catastrophe’. However, by December, when the real ones are released, mining employers have even grown to like theirs.
 
The AIRC plan that under modernised awards even small employers would have to pay redundancy runs into trouble when Gillard says the Government doesn’t like that idea. It is quietly dropped in the final versions released on 19 December.
 
The ASU claims that the draft modernised clerks award will cost Victorian casual clerical workers $45 a week.
 
More detail is released on Labor’s IR laws, which is welcomed by employers. They particularly like the fact that there will be some limits on the content of agreement, in that they must continue to ‘pertain’ to the employment relationship. However, they have reservations about arbitration powers.
 
Unions finally lose the battle to downgrade the ABCC.
 
Union fears about Labor’s IR laws are elevated when The Australian newspaper praises the Government for keeping ‘most of ‘WorkChoices’. However, Gillard says claims about ‘WorkChoices Lite’ are ‘absurd’.
 
This claim is undermined when a former judge of the AIRC, Paul Munro, warns that the Labor Government’s proposed new IR system has ‘serious deficits’ and retains too much of WorkChoices.
 
The ACTU says bosses got off lightly in the Productivity Commission’s draft plan for paid maternity leave, saying it would cost them less than $50 a week.
 
A discussion paper suggests that the replacement for the ABCC under Fair Work Australia might not have such draconian powers. The discussion paper, by former Federal Court judge Murray Wilcox, finds that the ABCC’s rules ‘treat building workers more harshly than people in other industries’.
 
November
 
Concerned members of the ‘Industrial Relations Club’, including AIRC Commissioners, who worried they would be left out of the new IR system had their fears removed when Gillard announced that the whole lot of the existing system would move across to Fair Work Australia.
 
The financial crisis finally began to swamp the skills shortage crisis as prospects for employment became grimmer and fears of higher unemployment rose.
 
Hopes of a national IR system coming into operation in the near future were dashed when the State IR Ministers failed to agree on how it could be done but agreed the Fair Work Australia would provide a ‘foundation’ for such a system.
 
The new WA Liberal Government immediately 'put the knife' into this prospect by saying it would not join such a system.
 
Gillard released 1000 AWAs that had been ‘de-identified’ so researchers could compare them to awards. She said they showed how bad AWAs had been for Australian workers.
 
Telstra defended chief executive Sol Trujillo's $13.4 million annual pay packet on the day its workers began voting in a secret ballot on strike action over the company’s refusal to negotiate a union collective agreement.
 
The much-awaited new IR legislation was tabled in Parliament by Gillard. Major elements were more rights for unions, a kind of pattern bargaining, and no prohibited content in workplace agreements.
 
Gillard said in her second reading speech that all aspects of the new Fair Work Australia (FWA) system will come into operation on 1 July 2009, except for the National Employment Standards (NES) and modernised awards, which will begin on 1 January 2010. The new awards will be reviewed every four years.
 
The Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) attacked the new Federal IR laws before they were even tabled in Parliament, saying they give unions the greatest increase in power since Federation.
 
AMMA chief executive Steve Knott said the Fair Work Bill was ‘more about resuscitating an ailing union movement, not improving business conditions and job prospects for ordinary Australians’.
 
In a bid to stop IR being an issue in the next federal election, Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull completely dropped the Liberals’ traditional support for individual workplace agreements.
 
At a press conference after Gillard had tabled the Fair Work Bill in Parliament, Turnbull said: ‘We accept that WorkChoices is dead. The Australian people have spoken.’ However his deputy, Julie Bishop, remains an avid advocate of individual agreements, along with others in the Party.
 
After reflecting on the content of the new IR laws, employer organisations decided they weren’t so bad after all.
 
December
 
After more reflection, the Chambers of Commerce decided to demand changes to the IR laws, saying they bring additional regulation and labour costs at a time of global economic crisis. They also want the introduction of the new legislation returned to the original date of 1 January 2010, rather than the new date of 1 July 2009.
 
Nevertheless, the Federal Government last night (4 December) got its Fair Work Bill through the Lower House. However, it knew the real trouble lay ahead in the Senate, which immediately referred the Bill to a Committee inquiry, which will report in February 2009.
 
In a sign of the gathering economic gloom, workers at a Melbourne travel company were asked to consider a 10% pay cut rather than face redundancies.
 
And, in a dispiriting end to the IR year for Turnbull, his claim that the Opposition would pass Labor’s IR laws began to unravel, with major Opposition figures contradicting him.
 
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