By Jolyon Campbell
MELBOURNE — As Green Left goes to press it appears construction workers have been successful in their bid for a 15% cross-industry pay rise, with 12 national building companies and 118 smaller employers signed up to grant the rise without trade-offs in conditions. The construction division of the CFMEU launched a national campaign of industrial action five weeks ago. Aimed at securing a national pattern agreement to cover all building employees, the campaign marks a break from the enterprise bargaining framework which the union has been pressured to adopt for the past two years.
While the union had negotiated a 10% pay rise with the larger national building companies over 1993-1995, only 1000 of the union's 25,000 members received the increase. The failure for gains won from one employer to flow on to other workers in the industry has been one of the hallmarks of the enterprise bargaining system. The first phase of the current campaign aimed to generalise the 10% gain across the industry, before claiming the further 15% over two years.
The union's Victorian state secretary Martin Kingham told Green Left, "The strength of the campaign came from the union's members. Branch meetings have directed our management committee to pursue the 15% without discounting or trade offs. There's no way we in the leadership could push for any less even if we wanted to.
"The call for the campaign came from the Victorian branch, but we realised that it must be a coordinated national campaign. A committee of about 25 shop stewards was elected to put the claim together, and make recommendations to the union's management committee. Their strategy was to take all the best gains from individual enterprise bargains around the country and put them together as a pattern agreement. There are other gains in conditions under negotiation including an extra $20 superannuation contribution, $10 redundancy fund payment and a baseline $2-per-hour site allowance."
The campaign initially targeted large national building companies, securing agreements that would provide a benchmark for negotiations with employers' associations and ensure a flow-on to all workers in the industry.
While the initial reaction from employers was very hostile, the campaign of site-by-site industrial bans was too intense and well coordinated for the companies targeted to maintain their opposition.
"Again, our strength was our organisation on site", Kingham said. "You can't just sit here in an office and say, 'on Wednesday all doors are banned'. It was run by the members and shop stewards. Due to the casual nature of employment in the industry, a high proportion of our members have served as shop stewards at some stage, and we have a comprehensive training program in place for them."
On September 19, the MBAV (Master Builders Association of Victoria) threatened to break off relations with the union and force employees to negotiate unrepresented.
The MBAV publicly denounced the wages campaign as "thuggery", and "vandalism against the economic recovery". The threat was widely interpreted as foreshadowing an attack on the union in the style of the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation in 1986. But reading the strength amongst the ranks, about 60 of the MBAV's member employers voted unanimously at a crisis meeting to direct the MBAV to negotiate a pattern agreement for 15%. The union has given the MBAV until October 3 to negotiate the deal, or face systematic industrial action on its employers' sites.
While the union drew some confidence from recent pay victories by transport workers (15%) and electrical trades workers (14%), Kingham said the victory would be a continuation of construction workers' traditional role of setting the pace for wage gains.
Construction workers win pay rise
By Jolyon Campbell
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