Real life in the metal industry

Issue 

The Cutting Edge: The Metals — Anatomy of a union
SBS, Tuesday, April 4, 8.30pm (8 Adelaide)
Reviewed by Jennifer Thompson

This documentary seems to represent largely the viewpoint of the AFMEU (Automotive, Food, Metal and Engineering Union) leadership in embracing ALP industrial policy and enterprise bargaining.

The documentary, made over six months in 1994, involves the AFMEU and the 50 workers and owners of a small metal fabrication factory in Botany, in Sydney's south. The factory, by its small and seemingly non-unionised nature, represents thousands of similar outfits in Australia today.

The union organiser, Dave Oliver, is called in by a union member over non-payment of award overtime entitlements, to the surprise of the boss, who says he'd personally questioned all employees and found no-one willing to admit union membership.

Despite threats by the boss to stop bonus payments, an Industrial Relations Commission session produces agreement to allow the union into the workplace, promises that union members will not be intimidated and a meeting with the union to discuss breaches of award overtime provisions and an enterprise agreement.

The film follows the process of unionisation of the workplace and the negotiation of the enterprise agreement, which involves all the workers in decision making — a level of democracy and accountability many of us would be unfamiliar with.

These events are interspersed with footage of the AFMEU annual conference, which discusses moving away from direct election of union officials to appointment of outside "experts" on modern work organisation and management techniques. Opposition to enterprise bargaining voiced at the conference is counterposed with footage of Paul Keating applauding the union for leading the way in labour market and industrial reform.

The documentary attempts to deal with concerns over falling unionisation, and sniffs around the edge of the debate over enterprise bargaining, but fails where leadership of the union movement has failed. In discussing the dilemma of the union movement, all factors are mentioned except that of union leadership compliance with federal Labor's policy of wage restraint. Since 1983, there has been a swing of 10% of GDP from wage and salary income to profits, worth $40 billion per year in current terms.

Enterprise bargaining is the latest form of wage restraint preached by union leaders, and one of the least popular judging by the increased rate of de-unionisation since its introduction in 1990. While union campaigns to recruit and win wage rises through enterprise bargaining are succeeding in some areas, these gains don't match the flow of union members exiting by the back door. Bearing this in mind, the documentary is a good look at real life in the metal industry today.

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