Inside the tent

The right to strike in Australia


Chris White

Industrial relations politics .... this time with power

The Howard government again moves to implement radical right industrial relations policies - this time with Senate power. Contested industrial relations politics are high on the public agenda. There are many important industrial relations issues. This paper is about the international protection of the right to strike in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards. The questionable application to Australian labour law is analysed. The limitations on the scope of the right to strike, protected action under the Workplace Relations Act (1996), WR Act (1996) and how recent politics has seen a failure to comply with minimum ILO workplace standards is described.

The Howard government's proposed new labour laws in 2006 further breached ILO obligations. These include the Better Bargaining Bill (2005) (BB Bill) and the repressive regime for unions in the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill (2005) (BCII Bill), as well as pre-strike ballots and further radical right-wing proposals. The Minister of Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews (Minister Andrews), employs 'spin' in denying any move to strip back the right to strike. But it is clear that the legal right to strike is under severe attack, to the point of suppression. This is an important, contestable industrial relations issue. The erosion of collective worker freedoms is alarming in a democracy.

Into the ILO tent

The ILO is the United Nations tripartite agency responsible for setting and monitoring basic minimum workplace standards - International Labour Standards (ILS). Australia voluntarily agreed to and is bound to implement ILS in Australian labour law, including the international jurisprudence protecting the right to strike from legal sanctions.

Minister Andrews in the June 2005 ILO Annual Conference took Australia back within the ILO, as Australia was elected on the ILO Governing Council representing the Asia-Pacific region. His public recognition of the ILO has given impetus to the ILS debate. Minister Andrews said 'I suppose our view is that it is better to be inside the tent rather than outside'.1 What role, other than opposition to ILO standards, is not yet clear. The Howard government has been 'markedly less well disposed to the ILO than its predecessor', ranging from downgrading participation to hostility and contempt (Creighton and Stewart, 2005:65). ACTU President Burrow said it was 'unbelievable' the government was rejoining the governing body of the ILO when it was 'seeking to further undermine freedom of association to collective bargaining'.2 Minister Andrews said he would respond to recent ACTU complaints about Australia's non-compliance with ILS. 3

The ILO, with Australia as a founding member since 1919, is uniquely based on a tripartite structure, where governments, unions and employers have equal status. At the annual International Labour Conference, the ILS are adopted with two-thirds majorities