by Andrew Jackson Company collapses and treacherous mass sackings without notice are two of the warning signs of a telecommunications industry in turmoil. In the past month alone Vodafone, Optus and Orange have announced they are slashing a further 2435 positions. Unions have dragged all three companies before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) in a bid to save jobs and preserve workers' rights. "It is appalling that the standard method for workers in the telecommunications industry to receive notice of redundancy is through the media", said Mark Brownlow, spokesperson for the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU). "They appear to be taking an absolutely minimalist view of their legal responsibilities under the Workplace Relations Act, not to mention their broader social responsibilities as employer in a major industry", said Mr Colin Cooper, President of the Communications Division. Unions say they have been left with "no choice" but to take action through the IRC. At a hearing last Wednesday Vodafone denied that they had made a decision to reduce staff, but this was in clear contradiction to "leaked" public statements made by the company to the media and signed by CEO Graham Maher. IRC Commissioner Greg Smith rejected Vodafone's claims as "sophistry" and ordered the company not to retrench any employees until genuine discussions had been held with the unions. A spokesperson for the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) said, "In the short term it [the IRC decision] has brought immediate relief to many anxious Vodafone workers. In the longer term it sends a strong message to employers about the importance of properly consulting staff and their unions". This follows a similar ruling against Orange/Hutchison the previous week. The company has now promised that in future it will consult with unions at least two weeks before any new redundancy announcements are made. Optus announced another 350 job cuts last week (now 910 in total), and this week the company is to also appear before the IRC. The CEPU asked Optus to explain what criteria they were using to decide which people would be retrenched, and to give assurances they would accept volunteer redundancies before "simply showing employees the door". The union took action after Optus failed to comply with either of those requests. The unions say a primary focus is to minimise job loses, and that proper consultation would allow them to put forward alternative proposals. The CPSU says it will go over all redundancy plans with "a fine-toothed comb" to save every job possible. Agreement is being sought whereby all companies first try to find positions for displaced staff in other parts of their operations; or in the case of departments being outsourced, that employees be allowed to follow their jobs to the new company. Unions are demanding that companies then offer voluntary redundancies before arbitrarily making dismissals. Agreement has been reached with Orange on this issue and unions hope that Optus and Vodaphone will follow suit. With the re-election of the Howard Government, the CEPU now has grave fears of massive layoffs under a fully privatised Telstra. The union says that during the privatisation discussions, "We were constantly told that the skilled employees shed by Telstra to please financial markets would easily find work elsewhere". "Those claims look pretty hollow now." CPA General Secretary Peter Symon said that workers and their unions face a very difficult task to defend workers' jobs in the face of the decided economic recession that is already affecting many industries and the technological changes which are being used to destroy jobs. He noted however, that there seems to be an all-too-ready acceptance of the inevitability of job losses and that the best that can be done is to insist on voluntary redundancies and that entitlements be paid, important as these issues are. "We have just seen figures of the large amount of unpaid overtime being worked across the workforce and it seems that little has been done about this growing appalling situation. "There has also been the virtual abandonment of the 35-hour week objective of the trade union movement and, because there has been a lack of commitment by many unions to campaign on the hours question, employers have found it easy to impose longer working hours and unpaid overtime", said Peter Symon. "It is encouraging to see that some trade unions are beginning to tackle the rapid growth of casual employment by insisting that casual jobs be converted into full-time employment. "The winding back of casual employment, strict limits on overtime, the payment of all overtime and, most important of all, an Australia-wide campaign for an across-the-board shorter working week are priority areas for the trade union movement. "The tremendous increases in labour productivity brought about by technical changes fully justify these claims. The usual employer claims that the improvement of the living standards of workers cannot be afforded have to be rejected. They are false economics. "By seriously taking up these issues trade unions would also start to reverse the serious decline in trade union membership", concluded Mr Symon. Stunning win at Stellar In a major breakthrough, Telstra's Stellar call centre staff have been granted the first Award in the contract call centre industry. It took a two-year campaign to win the Award, with Stellar employees and the CPSU fighting not only onsite, but taking the struggle to the NSW Trades and Labor Council, local and state politicians, holding public rallies to involve the media, and even registering a freedom of association complaint with the Office of the Employment Advocate. The story of Stellar call centres is one of spectacular corporate bastardry (see Guardian 1053, 11/07/01). Telstra set up the company in 1999 as a joint venture with US corporate giant Excell. Telstra then outsourced many of its call centre functions and sacked thousands of its relatively well-paid unionised staff, only to re-employ them under the "new" company Stellar. Under the non-union individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements) offered by Stellar, employees suffered some of the worst abuses found in the call centre industry. Stellar exploited the inability of workers to bargain collectively, introducing 40-hour weeks, unachievable work targets, unwritten and changeable rules, wide-ranging powers for management to instantly dismiss employees, and wage rates that left full-time employees scraping the poverty line. Management dragged known unionists and other staff who challenged the conditions before disciplinary hearings on trumped up charges. They also called in security guards or the police whenever a CPSU delegate attempted to visit the site. Under the new Award, employees have won a 38-hour week, safety-net salaries, new penalty rates and redundancy provisions, and recognition of the CPSU and its delegates.