ACTU lets off a little steam

May 1, 1991

By Peter Boyle

and David Mizon

Waiting for a national wages campaign from the ACTU? Don't hold your breath; there is none coming.

The electrical trades, metal and building unions are threatening to stop public transport and disrupt manufacturing industry if employers do not agree to the terms of Accord Mark VI in deals sought outside the Industrial Relations Commission, but they are unlikely to get much support from the ACTU.

The key deals have already been struck. A deal on waterfront reform (picked by Bill Kelty for its symbolic value), a deal for public servants and the quiet completion of enterprise bargains by the better placed unions in the oil, chemicals, private sector transport and paper and pulp industries — and that will be it.

Some unionists are interpreting these deals as a go-ahead signal from the Hawke government and the ACTU for other unions to press their claims "in the field", but others suspect that the weaker unions are being left to stage token actions to release the pressure at the rank-and-file level.

Australian Chamber of Manufactures Victorian chief executive Ken Crompton dismissed the threats of industrial action as unlikely to achieve more than further job losses.

According to the Financial Review, big business has already calculated the cost of the ACTU letting off some steam as "slightly less than the original Accord Mark VI deal and last week's Industrial Relations Commission decision".

The Accord claim for another 3% in superannuation contributions has been dropped in favour of, at best, a 1% increase for the half of the workforce on superannuation. Talk of legislation to force employers to implement superannuation schemes for all workers appears to be just talk. The Hawke government is very cagey even about paying public servants an extra 3% in super this year.

There was a lot of fighting talk at the first meeting of the Victorian Trades Hall after the IRC decision to dump Accord Mark VI, but it has not been followed up by any action. Trish Caswell, a member of the ACTU executive, admitted later that while some unions (those in the "hot shops", as she put it) would pick up some gains through enterprise bargaining conducted outside the IRC, most wouldn't make any gains at all.

Vehicle Builders Employees' Federation organiser George Koletsis said on Radio 3CR that if the ACTU was serious about a national wage campaign, it would do what was done in the late 1970s: the more powerful and better placed unions would take action for decent wage increases and, when these were won, the ACTU would campaign to spread the gains to all awards.

Instead, the ACTU engages in theatrics around waterfront reform, in effect saying to the employers, "We'll help you complete the job front unions (slashed by thousands of members since reform began) if you give the Accord Mark VI some token recognition".

Meanwhile, the powerful unions are quietly stitching up enterprise bargaining deals that will give them wage rises well above the overall 7% gain in disposable income promised under Accord Mark VI. For instance, National Union of Workers members at Bulk Liquid Terminals and Powell Dufryn in Coode Island, Melbourne, picked up $30-70 in over-award payments — paid from three months ago.

NUW members at Altona Petrochemical expect a similar deal in the next few weeks, although the company is worried that granting pay rises outside the control of the IRC risks the union making further claims.

But workers in the vehicle components industry are being forced to work shorter weeks with loss of pay or to face further retrenchments. The ACTU is allowing the employers to use the recession to squeeze major concessions from most workers.

The pressure on workers in the manufacturing sector is unlikely to let up even after the recession is over if the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Council's predictions are correct. The TCFC reported on April 26 that 40,000 jobs (mostly in Victoria) could go between now and 1995 in these industries because of the recent federal government decision to speed up the lifting of protection.

As the NUW example shows, there are still sectors of the union movement strong enough to lead the charge in a united national wage campaign (if only to maintain the buying power of wages). But the ACTU's main objective today, as Kelty repeatedly stresses, is to deliver enterprise bargaining and prove that it, together with the Hawke Labor government, offers big business a better service than the Liberal-Nationals could.

Some commentators have noted that the much publicised ACTU-Hawke government altercation with the IRC conveniently allows Hawke to get a head start on the Liberal-National promise to destroy the award wages system — a move that might have been calculated to win crisis-ridden Labor a bit more time from big business.

If the ACTU were to run a serious wage campaign, then big business would bring the Hawke government to an even faster end. Most workers would be better off, but that is not the concern of Kelty and Co.

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