The politics of industrial relations will be a crucial element of Australia’s Federal election due later this year. The Federal Government has already used workplace safety as a reason for the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The trade union movement’s latest response is a campaign launched on April 10, 2016 accompanied by an online video.
According to a media statement (not yet available online) CFMEU National Secretary Michael O’Connor launched the campaign
“…to counter the many myths the Turnbull Government is circulating around the ABCC,… The ABCC is a direct attack on working people and their families. It will make work sites less safe, leading to more deaths and injuries. It will make it harder for young people and older workers to get jobs.” (emphasis added)
The safety issue is mentioned briefly at the end of the video.
Any campaign that is aimed at myths needs to be careful that it does not create or perpetuate its own myths.
The introduction of the ABCC has no direct affect on occupational health and safety (OHS) as it has no OHS regulatory powers, and it never has. What it can do is affect a union’s activities which may include OHS activities. This is different from directly affecting workplace safety.
However the latest campaign is choosing words more carefully than trade unionists have done in the past. The image above states that:
“a new ABCC will do nothing to stop dodgy employers cutting corners that kill workers”.
The activities of the previous ABCC was almost entirely focussed on the union movement even though its attention was meant to be on the industry, not just one of its players.
What the campaign image above is trying to do is to emphasis the need for an even-handedness in ABCC prosecution actions. The unions are looking to move from a focus on the individual to, in OHS-speak, a focus on the work environment, working conditions, production timelines and the system of work that cause, or encourage, workers to place themselves at unnecessary risk.
The tempered language, only a week after one unionist overstepped the mark, provides a stronger argument but also spreads the issue of workplace safety beyond the operations of the ABCC.
If the trade union movement dropped safety as an issue in the ABCC protest, the union argument would be just as strong by focussing on the core industrial relations issues. If safety has to be included, at least the unions are being more cautious, and this is a good thing.