INCOMING ACTU secretary Dave Oliver has vowed to pressure Labor for increased union bargaining rights while mobilising unions in a campaign offensive aimed at stopping Tony Abbott winning power at next year's federal election.
Mr Oliver told The Australian yesterday his key priority was to make the ACTU a "high-profile campaigning organisation", and he wanted to instigate a community-backed political strategy that outstripped the union movement's efforts at the 2010 election.
"I think there will need to be a significant campaign because, no doubt, despite what Tony Abbott is saying out there that Work Choices is dead, buried and cremated, we know that will not be the case, and we think there will be serious threats to the working community in this country if he is elected," Mr Oliver said.
"It will be a lot different than the last federal election campaign. I think there will be more mobilisation, more engagement with the community, and that's what I am keen to do if I am successful in getting the position . . . to rebuild the linkages with the communities, to get more buy-in from the unions around the country."
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The push by Mr Oliver, who is certain to succeed Jeff Lawrence after nominating for the ACTU secretary's position yesterday, came as new figures showed the number of working days lost to industrial disputes had almost doubled in the past 12 months, prompting business and industry to blame the bargaining provisions in Labor's Fair Work laws.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the number of working days lost to lockouts and strikes rose from 126,600 in 2010 to 241,500 last year.
Business groups seized on the results to say the government's workplace laws were hampering national productivity and urged the independent panel conducting the review of the Fair Work Act to "rein in" right-to-strike provisions.
Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said the December quarter results were positive, with only 54,300 days lost compared with the 101,300 days lost in the three months to September.
"We're pleased with that number," Mr Shorten said. "This is at a time when there's been increased disputation between public servants and Liberal governments at the state level and also some of the turmoil that happened at Qantas."
Mr Oliver said he intended to push for legislative changes that gave unions greater access to arbitration to resolve protracted disputes.
He said the union that he led, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, had been locked in negotiations with bionic ear maker Cochlear for five years, and called for more requirements to be imposed on employers to bargain in good faith.
"For five years we have been trying to reach agreement and the employer stands up and puts their hand on their heart saying we have been bargaining in good faith when clearly they are not."
Arguing for more ready access to arbitration, he referred to the Qantas dispute.
"I think it was a complete nonsense that you had to have a CEO of an airline (Alan Joyce) to ground an entire fleet to get access to arbitration, so they are the big issues that we want to see reformed under the Fair Work Act," Mr Oliver said.
He said he had been able to work constructively with employers and government on issues confronting the manufacturing sector but he feared some employers had been willing recently to take a "more militant stance".
"Unfortunately, following the election of John Howard (in 1996), we saw the door slam very quickly and very decisively on any process of engagement with the unions," he said.
"When that happened, we saw productivity take a dive.
"We would be very concerned, if Abbott is elected, there will be the mentality that doors will be shut, there won't be collaboration and there may be confrontation from some employers, and we are seeing that now."
Mr Oliver said it was a "bit early" to quantify the size of the warchest that would be used to fund the campaign leading up to the election.
Pointing out that the 2007 Your Rights At Work campaign was three years in the making, he said it was "very important that very soon, after the ACTU congress (in May), I will be wanting to ensure that we can get the support of the union leadership around this country to conduct a major campaign - a major campaign around job security, and a major campaign fighting for the rights of workers in this country."
"And that will be a major campaign that we take all the way up to the election."
Paul Howes, the right-wing secretary of the Australian Workers Union, backed Mr Oliver's stand. "We should not be on the back foot about industrial relations . . . working men and women in this country have a right to be heard," he said.
National Left unions agreed yesterday to support Mr Oliver's nomination, while paying tribute to the work done by Mr Lawrence.
"Dave Oliver is an outstanding candidate for the position of ACTU secretary and has the support of the Left unions," they said.
"He has both the experience and expertise to take on this role at what is a critical time for the labour movement."