Which bank rips off workers?

Issue 

BY ZANNY BEGG

The Finance Sector Union has beaten back an attempt by the Commonwealth Bank to coerce its workers onto individual contracts, for now at least, but the dispute remains bitter. The two parties have set a deadline of October 31 to settle on pay and conditions for the 28,000 strong CBA work force.

The FSU has been waging a campaign for a 13% pay rise over the two years, coupled with an increase in staffing levels and a review of branch closures. The enterprise negotiations have been deadlocked for months with the CBA refusing to address staffing levels and only offering a 6.5% pay rise over two years. The bank has closed 438 branches over the last five years.

On September 28, the FSU won a court injunction against the CBA's attempts at enforcing individual contracts, which it saw as a deliberate strategy to break the union. The bank offered workers a one off lump sum payment of between $340 and $720 and a 6.5% pay rise based on performance indicators as sweetener in a contract which eliminated the union's right to represent workers in grievance procedures.

The Federal Court found that the bank may have breached the Workplace Relations Act by misleading workers into resigning from their union under the promise that they would not be "worse off". The CBA has been banned from offering individual contracts until the Federal Court makes a full ruling.

FSU assistant national secretary Peter Riordan described the court decision as a "king hit" to the CBA's union-busting operation, and it was greeted with dismay by the corporate sector. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry's workplace relations manager, Reg Hamilton, immediately called for an amendment to federal workplace laws to deliver "certainty to business".

This is the second time that the Federal Court has stalled corporations' attempts to force through individual contracts en masse. The first case, involving BHP's West Australian iron ore operations, is awaiting a final ruling in November.

The FSU took its case straight to the bank's shareholders at its October 26 annual general meeting. Using its control of proxies on over 4 million shares the union tabled a series of questions to the board, asking to explain how spending $400,000 preparing individual contracts benefited the shareholders and why the CBA had closed 250 branches after its takeover of Colonial. The questions were brushed aside by CBA executives.

Enterprise deals are due to be negotiated at National Australia Bank, Westpac and ANZ in the near future. The union is keen to stand firm in the hope that the CBA's tactics do not set a precedent for the banking sector.