The Guardian March 29, 2000


Victorian building workers' sweet victory

by Peter Mac

As the Master Builders' Association (MBA) and Prime Minister Howard gnashed 
their teeth last week, Victorian building workers celebrated the first 
victory in their struggle for a 36-hour week and improved wages and 
conditions. Major building firm Grollo Constructions has now concluded an 
agreement with the building unions that includes provision for extra annual 
leave, improved wages and conditions as well as a 36-hour week.

The deal is a major blow to the Victorian branch of the MBA, which had 
attempted to frustrate the union's campaign by locking out workers from 
Melbourne building sites.

It's also a severe setback for the Federal Howard Government, which had set 
its sights on the construction industry as its next target for "reform" 
(i.e. de-unionisation), after its less than successful efforts with the 
Hunter Valley coal miners and the maritime workers.

The Grollo agreement is, of course, only the first victory in the unions' 
campaign.

The dispute around the 36-hour week campaign was recently referred by 277 
of the building companies affected to the Australian Industrial Relations 
Commission (AIRC).

The Commission Wednesday last week terminated the collective bargaining 
period, thereby for the moment ending strike action and lockouts with 
regard to 217 of those firms.

The decision is likely to delay resolution of the dispute for those firms 
subject to the AIRC decision, and the CFMEU is appealing against against 
the decision.

However, according to the CFMEU's Construction Division Secretary Martin 
Kingham, their campaign will still continue for the remaining 92 per cent 
of the industry not covered by the decision.

Although the AIRC is by no means certain to grant the employees the shorter 
week, its involvement in the case is significant.

The Howard Government has in the past encouraged bypassing the AIRC, or 
reducing its powers, after it ruled in favour of the employees in a number 
of cases.

The number of major construction firms engaged in an advanced stage of 
negotiations with the unions has grown to 13, and they are expected to 
conclude a deal shortly. If this happens, the MBA will almost certainly be 
forced to reach agreement with the unions involved.

The MBA is still clinging to hopes of winning the day, but with the Grollo 
decision their chances have reduced dramatically.

The importance of the Grollo agreement is indicated by the Prime Minister's 
comments, in which he singled out the company's boss, Mr Bruno Grollo, for 
particularly bitter denunciation.

However, among the employers, Mr Grollo's approach stands out as the most 
rational.

Regarding the deal, he commented: "All disputes, however bitter and 
intractable, are eventually resolved through negotiation.... I think it's 
probably inevitable that a 36-hour week will come.

"Whether it comes immediately or gradually over the next three or four 
years is a matter of the negotiations that are going on at the moment."

The National Secretary of the CFMEU's Construction Division, John Sutton 
stated that if his union was successful in winning a shorter week in 
Victoria, they would carry through the demand for this to the national 
level.

He predicted that if this in turn were successful, the shorter week would 
become the standard for other industries.

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