Campaign 2003 meets stiff ideological opposition
by Bob Briton Bosses have closed ranks against workers seeking to renew more than 1100 enterprise agreements in the manufacturing sector. The agreements have been falling due for renewal since March this year and will all have expired by June. So far, two months of intense negotiations by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) have resulted in only 100 employers signing on. The AMWU has accused Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott of encouraging employers to take on the union. Negotiations have certainly taken place in an atmosphere of threat and menace with the Minister and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) linking punitive legal measures to every mention of industrial action. Australian Industries Group (AIG) Chief Executive Bob Herbert says that "economic realities" are guiding employers — code for pretexts to deny the just demands of their workers. The fact that many of the enterprise agreements at issue affect workers in the automotive component industry is glossed over in discussion of these economic "realities". Good news like an increase in vehicle sales in April by 2.3 per cent over their already high March levels is discounted. But the surplus capacity in General Motors' facilities in Thailand was used by GMH as part of its push to get the AMWU to drop a claim for a staggered ten-minute "smoko" or comfort break during the four-hour shifts. GMH said it would reconsider the hiring of between 300 and 1000 staff for a new third shift at their Elizabeth plant if the workers pushed ahead with the claim. The AIG has refused to discuss an industry-wide framework for renewing the enterprise agreements in question. This, and individual employer intransigence, has obliged the AMWU to resort to a series of half-day stoppages. Delegates decided last week to target 15 workplaces with over 1000 employees each — most of them in Victoria — in support of a package of improvements called Campaign 2003. Key areas that members want tackled include agreement to secure 100 per cent of entitlements, increasing the number of apprenticeships, wage justice, shorter hours, regulation of casual employment and paid maternity leave. Specifically, a 36-hour week, a 13 percent pay increase over the life of the new agreements and support for the NEST trust scheme have been put on the table. While some employers have come to agreements on a number of these claims, the overall stance of the bosses is one of confrontation. A number of employers have taken it upon themselves to distribute booklets among the workers seeking to discredit the NEST scheme favoured by the AMWU. NEST is an independent, not-for-profit trust that receives payments from employees on behalf of their workers for entitlements such as annual leave. The invitation from the AMWU to employers to come to agreement on the issues still stands. However, the members are clearly in no mood to be fobbed off. Last week, Victorian State Secretary Dave Oliver had the following to say: "The resolve of our members should not be underestimated. We call upon those employers who are simply towing the ideological line to sit down and begin addressing these key areas immediately."