Telstra unions endorse blank cheque agreement


By Leo Wellin

After 16 months of negotiations, union leaders on October 22 endorsed a two-year enterprise agreement designed to deliver greater profits to Telstra. Endorsement of the deal by union officials has angered many members of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and sections of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU). The agreement must be ratified by a general staff vote.

The agreement is part of Telstra's "corporate commitment" to reduce costs by 30%, despite annual profits over the last two years of more than $3 billion.

The agreement includes:

  • a working day that stretches from 7am to 7pm;

  • the possible introduction of shift work in all areas, with only 15% loading after 7pm or before 7am;

  • the introduction of workplace agreements for lower level management;

  • unlimited use of part-timers; an end to award rates of pay and annual increments, to be replaced by a "company rate"; and

  • the use of the "performance development review process" as a tool of harassment and to deny job transfers and promotions.

Of most concern is Telstra's demand for staff to be reorganised into "workstreams" during the second half of the agreement. While precise details have not been disclosed, Telstra aims to abolish current pay and classification structures and introduce a range of individual targets determined by "the needs of the business".

By endorsing the agreement without knowing the exact nature of the work force restructuring and its impact on working conditions, the union leaderships have signed a blank cheque for management.

To make matters worse, current industrial relations legislation makes any form of industrial action illegal once an enterprise agreement is signed, placing significant pressure on unions to agree to whatever the bosses put on the table during the restructuring negotiations.

Before the CPSU officials' final endorsement of the agreement, the CPSU national office conducted a de facto secret ballot of CPSU members. Questions included: "Based on what you know about the Enterprise Agreement, how would you vote if a ballot were held today?"; and "Would you be prepared to take industrial action as part of a campaign to improve the Enterprise Agreement?".

The form requested the individual member's name and work area.

While the results of this undemocratic exercise are not available, it is clear that the officials have made every attempt to avoid a broad discussion on what strategy to adopt in the negotiations. Official bulletins have urged "a calm approach".

Prior to CPSU officials' endorsement, a detailed options paper was read to delegate briefings on October 21.

It offered three possible choices: recommend a "no" vote on the agreement but recommend little or no industrial action; recommend acceptance of the agreement and advocate a "yes" vote; or recommend opposition to the agreement and that members begin a strong industrial campaign involving regular long stoppages over a long period of time.

Delegates were not allowed to vote on the options, but were merely asked to assess the mood of their workplaces. The justification for selecting the second option was summarised in CPSU bulletin: "While there were some issues that had not been fully resolved, there was no realistic prospect of improving Telstra's current offer".

CEPU officials have justified their endorsement by saying, "Reasonable agreements have been obtained that would deliver significant wage increases without trade-offs in employment conditions".

Telstra successfully divided CEPU members by offering significant one-off pay rises to line installation staff, and finalising a work force restructure before the final union membership endorsement vote.

The CEPU is not proposing to ratify the official endorsement through mass meetings, choosing a postal ballot of members instead.

Under the Workplace Relations Act, enterprise agreements must be endorsed by a simple majority in a staff ballot. Despite union officials endorsing a "Yes" vote and running joint meetings with management in coming weeks, the sentiment still exists for a serious campaign against the agreement to be waged.