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News News Workers deserve their share of the wealth too

Article by UnionsWA Secretary Simone McGurk in The West

Employer groups should be handing out concrete umbrellas to their members, given how often they predict the sky is about to fall in. First, the mining tax would ruin us, more recently a carbon price would do us in.

A fortnight ago, a Federal court decision to restore workers' bargaining rights in the Pilbara would bring "unrest" to the mining industry.

And yesterday, the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry got upset with a union for securing a pay rise for its members - a pay rise that, incidentally, was negotiated amicably and easily agreed on by employer and employees.

With all that "trouble" in the pipeline, why is it that Deloitte's Investment Monitor calls the WA economy "the heavyweight champion" of Australia? The mining industry alone will boost investments from $55.5 billion to $73.7 billion during 2011-12. Maybe actual investors have a grasp on reality that the Chicken Little employer representatives seem to lack.

WA workers, through their unions, have every right to ask for decent pay rises in WA's current economic climate.

The real damage to business is being done by the CCI's manifest failure to look after the interests of local manufacturers.

WA unions have been working with employers and the Australian Steel Institute (an employer's body) to campaign for more work from WA's big mining projects to be done in WA by local companies.

As part of the WA Jobs from WA Resources campaign, unions and employers have together been calling on the Barnett Government to ensure more West Australians are able to benefit from the resource boom rather than standing by and watching as more and more work is sent overseas.

The Canadians have successfully worked with many of the same major resources companies that are operating in WA to ensure that local workers and local businesses benefit from their country's resources, so we know it can happen here too.

You would think the CCI would support such a campaign given that so many of its members stand to benefit but they have refused to have any involvement, instead opting to stick to their old lines about union wage claims driving work offshore.

The Rio Tinto court decision has been another example of outrageous employer group statements.

You may have read claims from WA Mines Minister Norman Moore that intone ominously about the far-reaching implications for the mining industry of the ruling last month that an existing non-union collective agreement was invalid.

Far-reaching indeed - for the right of employees to actually bargain for their own conditions. Because that's what the Pilbara "agreement" struck down by the court stopped people from doing.

Rio Tinto wanted to keep "WorkChoices"-style arrangements in the mining industry long after voters rejected that whole ugly package in the rest of the economy.

Far from negotiating directly with their own employees, Rio Tinto wanted to avoid direct negotiations for as long as possible.

The Federal Court case successfully run by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has restored bargaining rights to Pilbara workers by overturning this bogus agreement.

If business and the State Government don't like companies negotiating with their employees can they let us know in plenty of time before the next election, please?

Clearly both the State and Federal Liberals have decided to let employer groups such as the CCI and the Australian Mines and Metals Association do their campaigning for them.

These organisations flood the media with claims that restored bargaining rights in the mining industry is an industrial relations "problem" which only a return to WorkChoices-style changes will fix (although they never call it WorkChoices, rather "greater flexibility").

But where exactly is this problem? Looking at both the national and the WA economy we find labour force participation at record highs: about 66 per cent nationally and even higher at about 69 per cent in WA. Australia's national unemployment rate of 4.9 per cent is the envy of the developed world, and WA's is even lower at 4.2 per cent.

What about levels of industrial disputes? According to the most recent ABS figures nationally there has been a 30 per cent decline in days lost to industrial disputes since last year. In WA over the same period there has been an 80 per cent decline.

If employer groups can't be pleased with those figures, nothing will satisfy them.

However, there are genuine problems with the Australian labour market about which unions are deeply concerned. The truth is that over the past five years total profits in Australia have grown 70 per cent, while total wages have only grown 47 per cent. The share of our nation's wealth going to working people has been falling over the long term.

This is the real industrial relations problem - we still don't have a system that ensures employees get their fair share of our nation's prosperity. This is why WA unions have campaigned for increased workplace rights, fair pay and conditions and equal opportunities for all members of society to benefit from events such as the resources boom.

The unfair share of national wealth for working people is Australia's and WA's real industrial relations problem.

Simone McGurk is the secretary of UnionsWA, the State's peak union body.


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