By Leo Wellin
Following the public endorsement by telecommunications industry union officials of a Telstra enterprise agreement many workplace delegates consider rotten, union militants are preparing a "Vote No" campaign for the staff ballot on the agreement that begins on November 23.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) are holding workplace meetings at which officials are urging members to accept the enterprise agreement, despite widespread cynicism and anger from some members.
In return for a 4% pay rise, the agreement extends "ordinary" working hours without penalty rates; introduces shift work with rosters between three and 10 hours long, determined by management; abolishes job classifications and annual pay increments in favour of "company rates" and "benchmark jobs"; and introduces individual workplace agreements down to lower level management.
A second 4% pay rise is promised within 12 months. However, this is conditional on acceptance of two separate work force restructures — the details of which are not known. Under current industrial relations legislation, this leaves unions in a position of being unable to take "protected action" (legal industrial action).
During the 18-month negotiations with unions representing Telstra workers, management devised a complex strategy to divide Telstra workers. It proposed acceptance of an "umbrella" agreement covering broad principles of operation, followed by three separate "workstream" agreements containing specific restructuring proposals.
The 4% pay rise is dependent on the acceptance of the three workstream agreements. The "customer field work force" (CFW) agreement covers mainly lines and technical installation staff; the "front of house" agreement covers sales staff; and the "support" workstream agreement covers administrative staff.
Telstra proposed a pay restructure in the CFW agreement which will involve pay rises of up to 12% for lines installation staff — who are the key membership of the largest Telstra union, the CEPU.
To justify their endorsement of the enterprise agreement, CPSU officials brazenly pointed out that accepting the agreement meant "ensuring the ongoing role for the union so members are looked after when changes are planned or disputes occur".
This statement is contradicted by the CPSU's unwillingness to mount a serious campaign against Telstra's outsourcing of work, site closures and harassment of workers over sick leave or performing union duties.
The CPSU leadership was a willing partner in the introduction of the "competency-based system" in Telstra call centres, which was supposed to obligate management to provide training and other resources.
Instead, the CBS agreement denied pay increases to many staff after assessment. Workers were penalised for such minor breaches as failing to sign off calls by saying, "Thank you for calling Telstra".
The CPSU failed to lead its members in opposition to the corporatisation of Telstra and deregulation of the telecommunications industry under the Labor government and, then, to Telstra's privatisation.
When the CPSU called its first national strike in 10 years at the beginning of the enterprise agreement campaign in October 1997, the official slogan was: "You can float Telstra, but don't sink the employees".
A coalition of CEPU and CPSU militants urging a no vote have begun circulating a bulletin headed: "Five good reasons why we should reject the Telstra enterprise agreement".
As well as quoting from clauses from the agreement that spell out how conditions will be lost, the bulletin calls for "no blank cheque" restructures and "no trade-offs" for a pay rise.
"Voting no to the enterprise agreement means rejecting Telstra's profit-first agenda", the bulletin states.
CPSU activists are also proposing motions to members' meetings that point out that none of the CPSU's initial log of claims has been fully met. The motion rejects the agreement, and calls on the CPSU telecommunications section secretary to convene mass meetings throughout the country to launch an industrial campaign that can maintain workers' jobs and conditions.