By Peter Boyle
By giving metal industry employers the right to stand down workers, the Industrial Relations Commission has raised the stakes in its confrontation with the Hawke government and the ACTU over the April national wage case.
The IRC inserted the new employer powers — which will apply only until September — into the metal award as 250,000 metalworkers struck for 24 hours on June 13. The strike cost employers $60 million, according to Metal Trades Industry Association executive director Bert Evans.
Unions reacted angrily to the IRC decision. Brian Fraser, national secretary of the Metal Trades Federation of Unions, warned that if employers wanted to use a "baseball bat" approach, the unions would have a "bigger bat". Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary John Halfpenny said, "We are not going to allow that sort of intimidation to deter us".
-2>In April, the IRC rejected the terms of Accord Mark VI and decreed a 2.5% wage increase subject to commitments from unions to carry on award restructuring and to make no further claims. The ACTU and the federal government rejected this, and the ACTU began a campaign to win Accord Mark VI from employers.0>
The ACTU has obtained Accord agreements with employers on the waterfront, in the public sector and in the building and petrochemical industries, but none of these has been ratified yet by the IRC. The waterfront deal is currently before a full bench, and several members of the commission have stated that they plan to stick by their April wage decision.
The Coal Industry Tribunal and the NSW Industrial Commission have handed down decisions at variance with both the national wage case and the Accord Mark VI. The Tasmanian Labor government has made its own accord with unions and employers. On the other hand, a number of small unions covering higher paid workers in the airline industry and NT police have accepted the national wage decision.
The MTIA — for years the best employer advocate of the Accord — has been the most vocal of the employers in resisting the ACTU-government campaign. So rolling industrial action in a few key metal factories has been going on for a month. The MTIA claims that 30 metal plants had been hit prior to June 13 .
-2>The MTIA temporarily split the metal unions last month by drawing the right-wing-led Federated Ironworkers Association, the Australasian Society of Engineers and the federal branch of the Electrical Trades Union into negotiations around a settlement within the framework of the national wage decision. However, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty and assistant secretary Laurie Carmichael soon pulled these unions into line. Together with the Metal and Engineering Workers Union, they then settled on the June 13 strike.0>
The real test of strength is taking place in a few plants through extended industrial action. On June 10, after a two week strike, the unions obtained an agreement from Email Ltd to pay workers at its Orange whitegoods plant the equivalent of Accord Mark VI pay rises.
But at Ericsson's Broadmeadow plant, the company has threatened to stand down up to 2000 workers because of a two-week strike by 80 dispatch workers for Accord claims. On June 15, the company applied to the IRC for a 2.5% pay rise for all its workers, hoping to split the workforce. The dispatch workers are covered by the MEW while most others are covered by the National Union of Mineworkers.
-1>Ironically, the difference between the national wage decision and Accord Mark VI, in terms of pay increases, is not great for many workers. Neither will come close to maintaining real wages.
However, Accord Mark VI seeks to implement a form of enterprise bargaining which the MTIA and the IRC reject. According to the MTIA's Evans, "real enterprise bargaining" can take place only when employees negotiate on an enterprise level and not through national unions. On the other hand, the ACTU seeks a form of enterprise bargaining entrenching a role for union officials. In either case, there will be a serious erosion of union solidarity and eventually of pay rates and working conditions. n