Unions to fight local councils over move to WorkChoices


Unions to fight local councils over move to WorkChoices

Unions will fight in both legal and political arenas attempts by some local government bodies to move themselves under the federal WorkChoices industrial relations system.


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Unions will fight in both legal and political arenas attempts by some local government bodies to move themselves under the federal WorkChoices industrial relations system.

If the councils are successful it would mean new council workers, such as garbage collectors and librarians, would be employed under AWAs and existing employees would be under pressure to trade away conditions like penalty rates, overtime and public holidays.

However, a leading trade union figure has warned that if local government puts their industrial relations system under the federal law via the corporations powers in the constitution, they also stand to lose powers such as town planning and control of the local water supply.

‘You can’t be half-pregnant,’ said AWU Queensland state secretary Bill Ludwig. ‘If you are going to take yourself to the federal parliament as a constitutional corporation, you get the lot. The Commonwealth can take over town planning, water supply, all the things that councils cherish as their purview will be lost.’

Ludwig said some councils seem to think they are trading corporations for industrial relations purposes only, but ‘that’s not right’.

Banana Shire Council in central Queensland says it has legal advice it can switch to the federal system and is leading the way for other councils to move to WorkChoices, but the AWU will oppose this.
Hockey backs the councils
However, Federal Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey is backing the councils all the way, saying councils need that flexibility in order to be able to maintain services.

He said the federal government was considering becoming a party in the looming Federal Court test case to determine if councils can bypass unions and move to the federal arena.

‘We stand ready to give councils whatever support is appropriate,’ Hockey said.
Workers will be real losers

United Services Union (USU) general secretary, Ben Kruse, said his union would support calls at the upcoming Federal ALP Conference to ensure ALP policy protected the right of local government workers to be covered by state IR laws.

The USU, which represents the bulk of NSW workers in local government, has reached agreement with 82 of the state’s 152 councils to refer disputes to the NSW IRC. These agreements will apply to more than half the state’s 50,000 local government workers.

AWU national secretary Bill Shorten, a federal Labor candidate, accused councils of attempting a ‘fundamental realignment of the constitution through the back door’.

‘The real losers in all of this clearly arcane legal debate are literally thousands of local government workers who now can be sacked for no reason,’ he said.
Opposition industrial relations spokeswoman Julia Gillard warned workers would be worse off if they were placed on federal industrial laws.

'That agreement can rip away penalty rates, shift loadings, public holidays,’ she said.
45 hour weeks

However, some councils say they need the ‘flexibility’ of WorkChoices because much of their employees work is done ‘out of hours’.

Banana Shire Council has proposed a draft deal for its employees that allows for a 45-hour week and the cashing out of annual leave for workers who have accrued weeks of holiday leave.

Under the proposal, employees would work 76 hours over a fortnight. If they worked up to 45 hours in one week, the second week would be a maximum 31 hours.

Greg Hallam, executive director of the Queensland Local Government Association, said councils wanted the capacity to be able to trade off overtime, holiday pay and penalty rates on the basis of a ‘quid pro quo’ with their employees.

‘It’s about how you flexibly arrange your workforce,’ he said. ‘So much of what we do is out of hours like operating garbage dumps on the weekend, libraries, and childcare facilities. In Queensland, we do water and sewerage. It’s about all those things that require 24-hour, around-the-clock operations.’

Hallam said councils wanted to put new employees on to Australian Workplace Agreements and regarded the unfair dismissal laws as a major hurdle to the efficient operation of their workforce.
Legal uncertainty

However, there is legal uncertainty about whether councils are corporations and thus covered by WorkChoices. So far cases that have gone to court have been decided largely on how much ‘trading’ the individual council was involved in - such as running a bus service — as a means of judging whether it was a ‘corporation’ or not.

The issue could eventually end up in the High Court regardless of how the Federal Court rules.

But a major concern for councils is that if they put some or all of their employees under WorkChoices and then the courts rule against the, they may be liable for compensation for lost penalty rates and overtime payments, etc during the period their employees were under the federal system.


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