By Jorge Jorquera
On the waterfront, the National Farmers Federation (NFF) spearheaded the new wave of neo-liberal attacks on workers' wages and conditions by seeking to smash a well-organised union with a militant history — the Maritime Union of Australia. In the bush, however, in its aim of cutting the costs of employing shearers and shed-hands, the NFF has pursued a different strategy. This time, it has not singled out a union for its militancy but for its compliance with agribusiness.
The NFF wants the Australian Workers Union (AWU) to be the sole agent for shearers and shed-hands. It wants to exclude the possibility of the Shearers and Rural Workers Union applying to improve the Pastoral Industry Award.
Steve Roach, secretary of the SRWU, says that while weekend and overtime work has formally been prohibited in the award, the nature of the industry has made it too difficult to prosecute the frequent breaches of this prohibition.
The SRWU has sought to compensate workers for this by pursuing penalty wage rates. In April 1997, "we filed an application for some 200 shearers and shed-hands in the industry as agents, to vary the conditions of the award", Roach said. The NFF challenged that individual workers have the right to vary the award, but lost. However, it has now applied under section 1.11 of the act to say that "it is not in the public interest to proceed", Roach said. "The grounds that it is using is that the AWU is a registered union and they're the only people they want to deal with".
For the pastoral bosses, the AWU has been an important part of their push to erode conditions. Referring to some recent struggles, Roach describes how "in three other blues in Victoria and New South Wales, the AWU rocked up and signed up scabs. or provided them. It really assisted the employer in whatever way it could do us over."