Transport workers campaign: Time for a wages catch-up!

November 23, 1994

By Jennifer Thompson

A jump in company profits, announced on November 17 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), has added to the campaign for wages increases currently being led by the Transport Workers Union (TWU).

The profit increase of 10.1% for the September quarter was headlined by the announcement by the National Australia Bank of an annual net profit of $1.7 billion, which sparked a call by the Finance Sector Union for a 5% wage increase for the bank's workers.

The TWU, which is going for a 15% wage increase for its 90,000 members, is one of several unions pursuing wage increases. Federal secretary John Price said the union was determined to secure wage agreements before Christmas to redress falls in transport workers' real wages over recent years.

The claims have received support from the architect of accord wage restraint, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, who said of bosses, "They have benefited from tremendous wage restraint and offered workers nothing out of enterprise bargaining, did not try to give them improvement or any of the results from their increased productivity and profitability. Employers like that should be worried because the union will be coming, and it will be coming very quickly."

TWU leaders have promised a militant campaign targeting the retail industry and armoured vehicle operators for strike action in the period before Christmas — potentially drying up the supply of goods in shops and cash in banks. The union is in a strong position with ABS statistics indicating a jump in retail turnover from $8.6 billion in a typical November to $11.3 billion in December.

Speaking at the launch of the United Transport Workers election campaign for the Queensland branch of the TWU, Price said, "Our members are sick of enterprise bargaining. Our wages campaign will be an old-fashioned wages campaign."

Companies likely to be directly affected by strike action include major transport operators Mayne Nickless, Brambles, TNT and Linfox in retail industry transport, and Brambles and Mayne Nickless also dominating armoured vehicle operations.

Two decades ago, the TWU was a wages campaign leader in the union movement. During the 1970s, through militant flexing of its considerable industrial muscle in oil distribution and airports, it secured real wage gains for these workers, which flowed on to the rest of the industry via the award system.

But over the years of the Accord, and especially under enterprise bargaining, transport workers' wage rises lagged behind the average. In the decade to 1993-94, award rates for transport workers increased by only 45.1%, compared with the average of 51.1% for all awards.

Since the 1992 Accord VI ushered in enterprise bargaining, the TWU has secured enterprise agreements covering only 10% of its members, mainly in the oil and airport sectors, with the remainder receiving only small arbitrated "safety net" rises. Price indicated the level of transport workers' dissatisfaction with enterprise bargaining: "We've sucked the lemon, and we don't like it".

The TWU claim and those from other unions for rises of up to 15% have generated nervous reminders from federal labor politicians to the ACTU about its commitment to see that wage increases are non-inflationary and bound to productivity increases.

Federal treasurer Ralph Willis added his voice to those of Paul Keating and industrial relations minister Laurie Brereton, saying in parliament that wage rises paid for either by productivity gains or by workers sharing in corporate profits were "all right". But he dragged out the old chestnut about "excessive" wage rises causing unemployment, and threatened that the government would jack up interest rates if there were widespread wage increases not tied to productivity.

Keating warned employers that it was up to them to ensure that wage outcomes did not impact on prices and were justified by productivity gains, saying that the government and unions had delivered on lowering inflation.

He was responding to suggestions aired at a November 9 meeting of the ACTU, the National Union of Mineworkers, Automotive, Food, Metals and Engineering Union, the TWU, the Community and Public Sector Union and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association with Brereton and himself. Some union officials reportedly claimed that employers were prepared to pay large wage claims without productivity offsets provided the unions made a "song and dance".

Kelty soothed employer fears of a wages break-out flowing from the TWU claim, saying, "People get carried away and jump up and down and say 15% is very high. But it is only 7.5% a year, there is no double counting [for those who have already secured rises] and their salaries are very low".

Kelty went on to pledge: "There won't be a wage explosion, because this community made a number of decisions, and the unions made a number of decisions which would take away the process of wage leap-frogging."

Brereton continued the theme, saying that the Industrial Relations Reform Act had separated arbitration from collective bargaining, preventing wage outcomes under enterprise bargaining from flowing on to awards. He warned the union that punitive measures such as those taken against the pilots' union would be taken against unions if strike action in pursuit of large wage claims breached the industrial relations law.

It has been left to the TWU to challenge an industrial relations system that ties workers ability to win wage increases to productivity gains at an enterprise level. The TWU campaign for a 15% wage increase in an industry which is already highly productive, and where the restrictions on continued productivity growth like speed and load restrictions, are external, and in which the workers are generally not well paid, must challenge the linkage between productivity and wages.

Federal TWU president Steve Hutchins said, "This wage campaign is a national vanguard campaign, not just for transport workers, but for all workers who have been victimised and exploited under the enterprise bargaining system. Employers have got the money to give themselves pay rises. We only ask them for the same."

Dick Nichols, Solidarity editor said, "The TWU is setting an example for all unions, especially for those who have launched miserable 4% 'ambit' claims. There will not be a better time for workers to win back some of what was lost under the Accord. After 11 and a half years of accepting wage cuts, this is almost the last chance for unions to prove their relevance to working people."

Nichols added, "The TWU campaign should also be seen as the first step in restoring a wage system based on the changes in the cost of living instead of the dead end of productivity bargaining".

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