An industrial relations catfight erupted on Saturday’s AM between Heather Ridout of the AiG, one of the business unions, and Sharan Burrow from the ACTU.

The Government has been slashed at enough over its IR policies, but the catfight demonstrated just how much damage the unions may still do to Labor when they stick their claws into the debate.

Ridout took a chunk out of Labor’s IR proposals. “We’re very concerned about the collective bargaining model being put forward, we think it’s quite flawed,” she said.

“There have been very few strikes about the majority wanting collective bargaining and not being able to achieve it in Australia. And to put in place a right like this, which is anathema to Australian industrial practice and doesn’t exist in this form in virtually any country in the world, just seems unnecessary and retrograde.”

Ridout singled out collective agreements because she says they affect 38% of the workforce, compared with AWAs, which only affect 3.1%.

“If you have an unreasonable claim, like a 35-hour week, and the employer resists it and you have a protracted strike and the people who were taking strike action decide to feel financial pain and can demonstrate it, that will be sufficient to trigger arbitration,” she said.

“And you might end up with a 36-hour week. That standard would then flow to other companies and other industries. That sort of circumstance is too loose and would have a big economic cost.”

Burrows stuck back. “These comments demonstrate how extreme Australian business has become. It’s incredibly disappointing really, to see that our business leaders are not prepared to play a more balanced role in our community, to demonstrate concern for rights established through international law, or their employees, indeed for their own children and grandchildren.

“It’s shocking to hear Heather Ridout argue against good-faith bargaining when, in fact, she represents the manufacturing industry — to throw all her eggs in the basket of a government which has actually presided over the loss of almost 100,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector and,indeed, has seen the demise of productivity.”

Actually, Sharan, it was your unions, their featherbedding and ambit claims of the kind Ridout warned about at the beginning of the 1980s that destroyed Australian manufacturing. And if you’re talking about international law, for decades your unions ignored a fundamental  human right — the freedom to belong or not to belong to an organisation, with no ticket, no start arrangements.

Ordinary Australians haven’t forgotten this. They care about fairness in the workplace, sure,  but they clearly don’t believe unions are essential to preserving this. Virtually none of them belongs to a union.

Labor’s old pollster, Rod Cameron, was out warning Rudd about getting too cosy with the bruvvers again last weekend, through his usual mouthpiece, Alan Ramsey.

“I think in truth both the unions and the bosses are on the nose with the majority of the middle-ground workforce,” Ramsey quoted him as saying. “This bashing by business that’s going on won’t hurt Kevin Rudd, but it would be wrong to assume voters like the unions. They don’t. The prospect of more power to the unions under Rudd is a big turnoff to a largely aspirational workforce.”

Absolutely. “There have been very few strikes about the majority wanting collective bargaining and not being able to achieve it,” Ridout says.

Most Australians don’t worry about the second part. As long as employment laws are fundamentally fair, they’re just happy that there have been very few strikes — strikes of the sort that used to cause so much disruption so often to our daily lives.

That’s what the union movement is associated with — and it’s not a vote winner.