It was in the dying days of the Howard Government's Work Choices that contract cleaners in city office buildings combined together to win pattern collective Agreements which increase their wages by nearly 40% in four years, job security at change of contract and an increase in minimum shift time from 2 hours to 4 hours.
Once the Agreements were implemented, the ruling class representatives in the property services sector and their subservient contract cleaning companies did their utmost to prevent the spread of the cleaners' gains to other sectors such as shopping centres.
Some big property owners colluded with the cleaning companies to create new employing entities to try and avoid compliance with the terms and conditions of the cleaners' newly won collective Agreements. By the nominal expiry date of the Agreements in 2013, property owners through the Property Council of Australia gave the order to cleaning companies not to negotiate any new Agreements with cleaners and their union United Voice.
The cleaning companies also set about de-unionizing the cleaning workforce by restricting organizing rights of the cleaners' union and selective hiring of cleaners whom they anticipated would be least likely to join a union. There were a few exceptions with some property owners deciding to ignore the Property Council thinking that it was best to not "take on" the cleaners again and lose as they had done in 2007-8.
By 2013 the high turnover of labour in the cleaning industry meant that many cleaners had not participated in the initial struggle to win better pay and conditions back in 2007-8. So the majority of office cleaners decided not to push for new Agreements provided they maintained the superior above-award conditions contained in the initial collective Agreements. This was understandable but proved to be a mistake.
Once the wage gap narrowed between the nominally expired Agreement and the award, the cleaning companies, supported by the Property Council of Australia decided to apply to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the Agreements and push city office cleaners back to the minimum award conditions.
Whether they succeed in dong this remains to be seen as cleaners' resistance to this latest move by the greedy property owners and the cleaning companies they control gains momentum.
The attack on cleaners' working conditions is part of the overall attack on workers in Australia at the moment. It seems that even the very restrictive potential power that workers have in a bargaining period is too much for the ruling class to tolerate, particularly in the ruling class's "non-core" sectors such as contract cleaning. The exceptions are in some "core" sectors where the ruling class reluctantly accepts some collective voice of workers but uses the enterprise specific bargaining system and restrictive worker rights that go with it to contain struggle and minimize any gains made by workers.
An interim demand to combat this situation is for industry-wide collective bargaining and the right of workers to take industrial action across workplaces and outside of the short bargaining period.
For the longer term workers are learning through these experiences of short term wins being taken back by the capitalists at first opportunity, that the only answer is for the workers themselves as a class to become the ruling class of society.