Hawke government, ACTU in disarray over wages

Wednesday, July 3, 1991

By Peter Boyle and Dave Mizon

They couldn't even get their rhetoric straight. Prime Minister Bob Hawke ended the ALP national conference with a call for the Industrial Relations Commission to reopen the national wage case while ACTU secretary Bill Kelty claimed the "wages campaign is moving ahead as planned".

Meanwhile, few workers have had a cent of the Accord deal that was supposed to bring the end of eight years of sacrifice.

Although the ACTU has been able to put together deals with employers in key industries approximating (though consistently falling short off) Accord Mark VI, the IRC has refused to ratify them. The first such deal, done on the waterfront, was knocked back on June 18. This left pacts in the building, banking and public sectors up in the air.

The West Australian and NSW industrial commissions have also knocked back Accord Mark VI. Victorian and Queensland cases are still being heard.

A few workers have won agreements from employers to pay Accord Mark VI rises as over-award payments, thus bypassing the IRC. Employees of News Ltd won such an agreement recently. The WA government has said it will pay public servants Accord Mark VI payments despite the state commission's decision, but the Confederation of Western Australian Industry intends to ask the commission to cite the government for contempt.

Scattered strike action has been taking place in several sectors in support of Accord payments, usually with little immediate rewards for workers. In the metal industry, the IRC responded to industrial action by empowering bosses to stand down workers. Metal unions and employers are still negotiating, and metal unions have reportedly agreed to replace their call for a flat $12 first pay rise with a 2.5% increase in line with the April wage decision.

In its waterfront decision, a full bench of the IRC moved some way towards a compromise. It converted the flat $12 followed by three staggered productivity-based payments to a 2.5% pay rise followed by one productivity pay increase.

While the Hawke government does not want to lose face by being seen to back down from the Accord, Kelty and some union officials might be quietly stitching together compromise deals. These are likely to be accepted by unions in the most recessed sectors while better placed workers, such as the oil workers, may attempt to collect the full Accord promise.

In the oil industry, an agreement had been made — before the April national wage decision — for pay rises of 1.5% from last November and 2.5% (or $12, whichever is greater) from May.

While ACTU officials and the employers have repeatedly assured workers that the deal will be honoured regardless of the IRC decision, they have been negotiating to:

  • reduce the November increase to $2.50 and abolish travel and location allowances;

  • transform the second increment into a flat $12, to be paid on conclusion of restructuring;

  • forego any back payment of these increases.

However, a June 25 mass meeting of Victorian oil workers belonging to the National Union of Workers decided by an overwhelming vote to reject any watering down of the deal.

Victorian NUW branch official attacked the ACTU's handling of the negotiations and criticised the Accord process. They urged workers to re-establish their militant traditions and show the bosses they were still "alive and kicking".

The meeting resolved to give oil bosses until July 31 to finalise pay negotiations and then to take united, industry-wide direct action for the pay rises.

A motion of no-confidence in ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, moved from the floor, was passed after some debate. The oil industry, considered by Kelty to be his turf, appears to be heading into turbulent times.

Issue