Your Rights at Work

Your Rights at Work – Worth Fighting For was a union and community campaign to restore workers’ rights and achieve fairer industrial relations laws.

The campaign has been called the most successful union and community campaign in Australian election history. It began in 2005 when the former Howard Government announced sweeping changes to workplace laws that would strip away basic rights at work including penalty rates, overtime and unfair dismissal protection.

Once thousands of Australians, including many young workers, began feeling the impact of WorkChoices the campaign grew rapidly into a broad-based movement for a fair go. People were mobilised to take action because the former Liberal Government’s unfair WorkChoices IR laws went too far. Australians said ‘enough is enough’.

Your Rights at Work was instrumental in the eventual downfall of the Liberal and National Party Government of John Howard and Peter Costello. In decades to come, historians will refer to the 2007 election as the ‘Rights at Work’ election.

The campaign continued after the 2007 election to ensure that improvements to rights at work were locked into the new Labor Government’s workplace laws.

The elevation of Tony Abbott to the leadership of the Liberal Party at the end of 2009 put all that at risk again. Tony Abbott has a long history of supporting unfair industrial laws, and in 2010, working Australians were faced with the very real prospect of a return to key aspects of WorkChoices if the Liberal-National Coalition had been elected. Unions had to mobilise again to demand stronger rights at work, not WorkChoices Mark II.

New Fair Work laws
After four years of campaigning, and months of debate in the Federal Parliament, a new set of Fair Work industrial relations laws to replace WorkChoices began operation on 1 July 2009.

The Fair Work laws give workers stronger rights to negotiate their wages and conditions and to have a say in their workplace. They will safeguard the rights of workers to be represented by a union and to bargain collectively for safe, secure and satisfying work.

And from 1 January 2010, young people and other vulnerable workers gained protection from a strong safety net of national standards, awards and rights.

WorkChoices – Whatever the name, never again
The 2010 federal election was the second election in which WorkChoices has been decisively rejected by the Australian public.

The Australian people sent a clear message in 2010 that their rights at work matter. They will not support parties that are committed to policies which undermine workers’ pay, conditions and rights.

As part of the ongoing union and community campaign to restore worker’s rights and achieve fairer industrial relations laws, the WorkChoices – Whatever the Name, Never Again campaign succeeded in forcing the Liberals and all major political parties to commit to fair work laws.

Despite attempting during the election to downplay his support for unfair industrial relations policies, it was clear from Mr Abbott’s record that if he won then it was only a matter of time before he brought back WorkChoices under another name.

In the course of 2010 the ACTU and unions successfully campaigned for the Labor Government to increase national superannuation to 12%, protect workers’ entitlements, increase support for aged care, introduce paid paternity leave and improve tax concessions for low and middle income workers.

Yet it must be acknowledged that many union members were disappointed more had not been achieved, particularly in relation to equal rights for construction workers, climate change, award modernisation and respect for unions.

At the beginning of 2010, 53% of people believed Tony Abbott would bring back WorkChoices and by the end of the election campaign 67% believed he would. A post-election poll by the ACTU found one in three voters said that WorkChoices was very important in determining their vote at the 2010 election.

A new era
The passage of the laws is a victory we can all take pride in having achieved. But our work goes on. Unions were able to use the Fair Work laws to redress the damage caused by WorkChoices and to protect the jobs, wages and conditions of workers in the economic downturn in 2009.

While these laws are a major step forward, there is still unfinished business that needs to be addressed. Working Australians are relieved there was not a change to a Government led by Tony Abbott and the parties which brought in WorkChoices.

The focus of attention of the Australian union movement has moved to ensuring rights at work are available to all Australian workers, including the 40% of the workforce employed in casual, contract, labour hire and other forms of insecure work.

Due to the way they are employed, insecure workers miss out on many of the rights and conditions that are standards for permanent employees, such as paid leave entitlements, protection from unfair dismissal and penalty rates for working on weekends and at night.

Under the umbrella of a new national campaign, Secure Jobs. Better Future, unions will seek improvements to job and income security for casuals and other workers, and to protect what has already been won for the rest of the workforce.

The name may be different but the purpose is the same.

Unions will continue campaigning for stronger workers’ rights and further improvements to the Australian industrial relations system.

We want to prevent a return to WorkChoices or any policies that undermine workers’ rights, and achieve decent jobs with strong workplace rights for all Australians.

We need to see better health and safety laws, an end to unfair laws in the construction industry, no workers being disadvantaged by Award modernisation, and a range of other improvements to workers’ rights.