Telecom workers vote for industrial campaign

Issue 

By Steve Painter

Telecom workers at mass meetings around the country have voted for an industrial campaign over management plans to cut its work force by 4400, with further cuts expected. Up to 12,000 jobs may be threatened in the medium term.

The union campaign will begin with bans designed to hit management information systems, but it is likely to spill over into services to the public. All-out strike action is not ruled out in a looming struggle that some union officials compare with the recent battle at APPM. The Telecom unions, currently in the final stages of amalgamation into the new Communication Workers Union (CWU), consider it ominous that management did not consult with unions before announcing the latest 4400 job cuts.

"World best practice equals world's worst conditions and services", ATEA/ATPOA NSW secretary Col Cooper told the main stop-work meeting in Sydney on June 23. After the meeting, about 500 workers marched to Telecom head office chanting slogans against Frank Blount, the $500,000 chief executive officer recruited from the US telecommunications giant AT&T last January.

Cooper says most of the job losses and other problems facing Telecom workers flow directly from top management, which includes seven North Americans who appear to regard the fragmented, private US system as a world model. Cooper and others point to many problems with the US system, and say there are other, more successful models, including the Scandinavian system.

The main threat to jobs at Telecom is the management drive to shed all but its "core" operations, a concept that appears to mean different things to different people even among top management, but which probably involves continuing ownership and control of the existing Telecom network without most of the associated services. Installation and service would almost certainly be contracted out, and operator services probably reduced to a bare minimum. Known elements of management's long-term plans include:

  • selling off the company's manufacturing section, Telecom Industries, which makes phones and other equipment;

  • selling off the company's fleet of vehicles and equipment and going over to a hire system (although there seems to be no hire company in Australia big enough to handle such a contract);

  • selling off much of Telecom's property, and doing away with its property services and construction operations;

  • closing down Telecom's stores, training services and staff facilities.

In some cases, existing Telecom sections might be hived off as separate companies, which could be expected to use the change to impose lower pay and harsher conditions on their workers.

Col Cooper told the Sydney meeting that Telecom services to the public were suffering as a result of a political commitment by the government and sections of Telecom management to support Optus, the newly created telecommunications competitor. Telecom is being forced to subsidise Optus by allowing it to connect into its network below cost, and to provide the new company with access to exchanges, cable ducts etc. Jobs created in Optus will not replace those under threat at Telecom, because the new company is pursuing a high-technology, low-employment strategy.

Cooper fears that the present combination of government and management policy could be heading Telecom into a serious financial crisis, and other officials say the company is deliberately giving away profitable work to contractors by overloading tenders. Telecom is also losing credibility through substandard work resulting from excessive pressure on its workers.

Much of the Telecom work force is disgruntled following several restructurings in recent years, accompanied by the loss of 12,000 jobs before the present round of proposed cuts. Some workers report being under pressure from management to take voluntary redundancy even before the new package is available.