Despite the threat of punitive action against striking oil transport workers and union officials, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) is pressing ahead with its campaign for a 15% pay increase across the transport industry. Oil industry drivers decided to go ahead with a 24-hour stoppage from midnight on Sunday, November 27, which would target aircraft refuelling.
The federal government immediately applied to the Industrial Relations Commission to suspend the enterprise bargaining period, during which the union may take industrial action. The IRC's ruling that industrial action in pursuit of industry-wide pay claims is out of step with enterprise bargaining legislation provides an opening for employers to halt such action in future.
TWU federal organiser Dennis Elliott described the ruling as making a mockery of new federal legislation on the right to strike, saying the union would be pressing ahead with Monday's stoppage. Oil industry employers had declined by Friday to apply to the commission for a bans clause, making it unlikely the union and officials would suffer heavy financial penalties in this instance.
This follows successful strikes by NSW transport workers involved in delivering food and milk to supermarkets. Drivers at Australian Cooperative Foods, which supplies 60% of Sydney with milk, returned to work after the company agreed to the 15% pay rise.
They were closely followed by drivers for Refrigerated Roadways, which supplies supermarkets across NSW, who returned to work after an undisclosed increase was granted, with the remainder of the 15% to be negotiated. Earlier, drivers for United Dairies negotiated an agreement with the company and returned to work.
Green Left Weekly's Sue Bolton spoke to TWU federal secretary John Price about the TWU campaign.
What has been the Transport Workers Union experience with enterprise bargaining?
Two years ago, a couple of the major employers said they wanted to negotiate some enterprise bargains and a framework for enterprise bargaining was set up between those employers and the TWU.
At the time we were in the depths of recession, with no prospects of a national wage case and it was six months before the federal elections.
Since then the TWU has only managed to win about 200 enterprise bargaining agreements. Although these agreements were for a 6% pay rise with virtually nothing given away, workers not covered by these agreements (the vast majority of members) have received no pay rise in the last two years.
Why hasn't enterprise bargaining worked in the transport industry?
The problem with enterprise bargaining in our industry is that we deal with thousands of employers. Each of our awards would have 6000-7000 employer respondents.
It's not only the TWU that is frustrated with enterprise bargaining. Employers have conceded privately that they're frustrated with the enterprise bargaining system and want to see a standard outcome across the industry. That is because the industry is fiercely competitive with so many employers in it. They'd rather see a standard outcome than have half a dozen large companies paying one wage rate, and the rest of the employers paying different wage rates.
What motivated the TWU to go it alone for a wage increase?
The TWU award rates of pay only moved by 45% in the last 10 years, whereas award rates of pay for other workers moved by 51%. Semi-trailer drivers are on $417 gross per week, and labourers are on $390.20 gross per week. No-one can survive on that base rate of pay. That's why our members have to work so much overtime in order to survive. This is our one opportunity to address those low base rates of pay.
There's no ambit in our wage claim. We want to win the 15% even though we're going it alone, but our award conditions are not negotiable.
If we're successful, enterprise bargaining won't last, and the federal government will work out a new way to re-shackle the union movement. We don't believe the government can get away with its threat to increase interest rates and decrease government spending if we win.
How do you plan to win the campaign?
We've been planning the campaign for 12 months. In the past we've run wage campaigns across the whole industry. That's what we did in 1981, when we had a successful wage campaign.
We couldn't get away with that now, so we've decided to run the campaign sector by sector and serve a claim on all the employers in that sector. There are about 12-14 sectors in the transport industry. We've started with the ones which have the biggest clout, the retail and armoured guard sections. We're waiting for a response from the employers before we start industrial action. [The TWU has given companies a deadline of December 2 to agree to the claim.]
What's been the response from members?
The members are rapt that we're prepared to have a go. Everyone's going to be on a steep learning curve, though. A lot of our members, including officials, have never been involved in a big wages campaign before.
What about enterprise flexibility agreements? Do you think the employers will try to use the wage campaign to introduce EFAs?
The bosses in the transport industry aren't smart enough to try to do what CRA is doing. They just try to attack the award system. There've only been two EFAs in our industry.
The first involved Mt Buller Bus Lines, but they had to give up on it because they couldn't prove that no worker would be disadvantaged. The only other one is in a unionised yard in Western Australia, but that hasn't been heard in court yet.