ACTU secretary Dave Oliver has declared the union movement will aggressively campaign to "expose" Tony Abbott on workplace relations, as union leaders prepare to sign off on a multi-million-dollar fund to fight the Coalition and business in the lead-up to the federal election.
Yesterday employers urged the Opposition Leader to ensure his pledge to revamp the flexibility provisions of the Fair Work Act would allow companies to buy out the penalty rates of employees and reintroduce the Australian Workplace Agreements that operated before John Howard's Work Choices regime.
In a speech in Newcastle last night, Mr Oliver said he shuddered when Mr Abbott talked about the Coalition returning the "workplace relations pendulum to the sensible centre".
"I make this promise: the union movement will expose Abbott on industrial relations before the next election," Mr Oliver said.
"We will not stand by and let him take Australia back to a dog-eat-dog industrial relations system, where low-paid workers have their penalty rates and other rights at work stripped by individual flexibility arrangements that undermine their collective agreements."
The ACTU executive is expected to sign off on a campaign fund on July 25 under a strategy designed to replicate the union movement's 2007 campaign.
Mr Abbott said yesterday he would be the "best friend" of workers should the Coalition form government.
"What I want to see is higher wages and more jobs," he said.
Julia Gillard said it was ridiculous for Mr Abbott to assert he would fairly represent working Australians in government. "With friends like that who needs an enemy," the Prime Minister said. "We have been here before when Mr Abbott was in government and he and his cohorts were in on a plan to rip penalty rates off Australians who rely on that money.
"If that is being the workers' best friend then I would hate to see an enemy of working people."
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said Mr Abbott should commit to changing the individual flexibility arrangements that existed to ensure employers and employees had the capacity to trade-off penalty rates.
The chamber's chief executive Peter Anderson said the arrangements should allow workers to have their base rate of pay loaded up in exchange for a cut to penalty rates, with any agreement subject to a "no-disadvantage" test.
Australian Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott said he was confident Mr Abbott would reinstate the legal flexibility that operated under the Howard government before Work Choices.
"If IFAs can be offered as a condition of employment, be subject to a no-disadvantage test against a relevant award and can operate for up to four years, the resources sector in effect could return to similar pre-Work Choices direct employment arrangements," Mr Knott said.