By Melanie Sjoberg
and Peter Boyle
MELBOURNE — The May 1 ACTU special unions conference to discuss the Industrial Relations Commission national wage decision fell in unanimously behind ACTU secretary Bill Kelty's proposal to reject the decision and seek the terms of Accord Mark VI through direct negotiations with employers.
"There are times for compromise and there are times not to", said Kelty, opening a verbal barrage against the IRC. "This is a fight and fights are always worthwhile ... there is no reason for the trade union movement to eat the vomit ... I will never accept this decision because it is an abrogation of everything we stand for as a union movement."
But beyond rhetoric, Kelty had very little to offer. The Financial Review editorial the next day advised employers to ignore the noise from the ACTU and be thankful for the move to a "far less national and all-embracing wages system".
Chris Kylie, Victorian secretary of the Transport Workers Union, drew similar conclusions: "When Kelty talks about enterprise bargaining, I don't know what he means", he told Green Left. "The experience in our industry is that it threatens the destruction of the entire award system. Maybe awards are not always perfect, but they do provide minimal protection for workers."
The conference decided that unions would approach employers with their claim for $12, a 3% superannuation rise, and further rises linked to enterprise bargaining. If employers don't agree, "affiliates should prosecute claims of their own choosing with an aggregate outcome not less than the current accord package". The conference conceded that some unions might have to undertake a "vigorous campaign", but no concerted national industrial action was planned.
The conference was vague about when and how any gains by stronger unions might be spread to the rest of the movement. "If the ball game is to move to enterprise bargaining, it will be the small shops that lose out", Electrical Trades Union Victorian secretary Gary Main told Green Left.
The ETU would organise some concerted action with other traditionally left unions, he said. "The ETU will be holding mass meetings in conjunction with other unions in each of the metals, construction and government sectors. The minimum position will be to fight for a 4.5% pay increase, $12 up front and 3% super.
"I don't accept the view that trade unions should become moderate and silent in times of recession. We will encourage a fight to maintain real wages without trade-offs."
Kelty's estimate was different: "Let us not mislead anybody. The economy is tight. We are going to have to battle through company by company, industry by industry. There can be no expectation we are going to have some immediate success overnight."
But it seems unlikely that many unions will be able to win concessions by-company negotiations while the current recession lasts. Even the ACTU's Accord partner, the Hawke government, is refusing to consider paying anything over $12 to public servants until after November.
ACTU assistant secretary Laurie Carmichael cautioned delegates to choose when and where to act "vigorously".
"After eight years of the Accord, Kelty should finally realise that it has let workers down", said Chris Kylie. "The system has been unfair, unjust and unbalanced for a long time. Trade unions were lulled into a false sense of security awaiting the drip-down effect."
Kelty was not prepared to admit this in his speech to the conference. "You are either for the national wage decision or for the Accord", he said, warning unions considering taking the 2.5% offered by the IRC that they might be denied increases won "in the field".
"Transport workers will be fighting for $12 and 3% super up front, as well as a $25 a week flexibility allowance in return for all the flexibility the bosses have taken in restructuring", said Kylie. "We won't cop trade-offs. We expect the federal office of the union to orchestrate a national campaign." n