Organised employer response to pattern agreement

July 23, 2003


MELBOURNE — Victorian manufacturing workers are being hampered in their attempts to finalise enterprise bargaining negotiations. Across the industry, employers are consistently holding out on some demands.

"There is a common position amongst auto components manufacturers to hold back on allowing the securing of workers' entitlements", Steve Dargavel, state secretary of the metals division of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, told Green Left Weekly.

The AMWU is fighting for workers' holidays and long service leave pay to be put into a trust fund, to ensure workers will get it if the company goes bust. "Workers are afraid of being stuck in a situation like [the workers of] Ansett and HIH, where the bosses walk away fine and workers are left high and dry", Dargavel commented.

The AMWU is the key union involved in the pattern bargaining Campaign 2003. The other unions involved are the Electrical Trades Union and the Australian Workers Union. The essential demands of the campaign are: shorter hours — a 36-hour work week and limits on non-voluntary overtime; minimum pay increases of 5% for each year of the three-year agreement; a common expiry date of March 31, 2006; improved long-service leave and more apprentices.

During the last four months of the campaign, many workers have been locked out by employers. "The government tries to argue that the unions in Victoria are out of control and destroying the economy. But during this dispute there have arguably been more days lost from workers being locked out by their bosses than by workers going on strike", Dargavel said. Workers have been locked out at Amcor in Dandenong, at PBR, ACI Box Hill, KSB Ajax Pumps, FNP and at Frigrite.

A 36-hour work week has been standard in the construction industry for several years, as it has in manufacturing sectors such as pharmaceuticals, petrochemical, glass and confectionary production. IXL Backwells in Geelong has had a 35-hour work week since 2000.

With the reduced standard week, workers only work a nine-day fortnight with no reduction in pay, as four hours a week are allocated to a rostered day off. It puts pressure on employers to hire more people.

Through the pattern campaign, the unions put collective pressure on all employers to accept this standard. The flow-on effect of such campaigns is evident among structural steel companies. With leadership from the AMWU, structural steel company employees are working together to negotiate the same agreements. About 500 structural steel workers will now be moving towards similar wages and conditions as that received on construction.

Dargavel pointed out that the union's collective, organised approach has been met with an organised response from employers. Early on in the campaign, employer-association the Australian Industry Group published a comprehensive booklet on how to respond to each component of the pattern agreement.

Given the employer, and federal government, rage at collective pattern bargaining, this coordinated employer response seems a little hypocritical. Even now, federal union-bashing minister Tony Abbott is trying to make pattern bargaining illegal.

In the meantime, some bosses are trying divide-and-rule tactics, telling workers that a better agreement would be immediately agreed to if the workers sign it without union involvement.

This was the case at FNP (formerly Bendix Mintex) in Ballarat. The company obtained an Industrial Relations Commission order to have a secret ballot on the pattern agreement. Workers were told that if the union's pattern agreement got voted down, the company would offer individual, non-union, agreements with better wages and conditions. This tactic is endorsed by the AIG.

The union has had some successes. Many labour-hire workers have been successful in negotiating to receive 19 rostered days off and a 15% wage rise over the life of the agreement.

The potential of collective action was illustrated by the picket at KSB Ajax in Tottenham, where workers were locked out for 10 days in the battle to achieve the pattern agreement. Workers were concerned that jobs were slowing disappearing, as work was increasingly outsourced to contractors.

Not only did the workers win pay rises and securing of entitlements, their agreement includes a clause ensuring that the company fully utilises its employees — including using overtime, relocated personnel, casuals and labour-hire employees — before contracting work out.

"This is the first time the members at KSB Ajax Pumps have ever been locked out, in its 30 year history", Marco Michetti, one of the AMWU stewards at the site told Green Left Weekly. "The members stood strong on their picket line, staffing it day and night. It was because of their strong beliefs that this campaign was successful."

From Green Left Weekly, July 23, 2003.
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