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.