Presently workers at QRail are discussing new enterprise agreements. In June 2008 QR signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with unions setting down rules for the current round of enterprise bargaining as agreements expire towards the end of 2008.
Workers involved include workshop trade workers (fitters, electricians, carpenters etc).
These people come under a QR Enterprise Bargaining Certified Agreement (EBA) that has recently expired. This agreement was negotiated in 2005 under Qld Industrial Relations legislation. However QRail merged its Queensland bulk freight operations with the Australian Railway Group (ARG) which is a national carrier of bulk freight. As a result it is likely that some EBAs will come under federal awards. An EBA is being renegotiated currently with workshop maintenance workers. There are a number of unions involved in the negotiations. This includes the Automotive, Metals, Engineering, Printing and Kindred Industries Industrial Union of Employees (AMWU).
QRail want workers and their unions to trade away a job security clause that read like this under the old agreement:
“The parties to this Award are committed to co-operating positively to increase the efficiency, productivity and competitiveness of the industries covered by this Award and to enhance the career opportunities and job security of employees in such industries.”
Needless to say, this clause contains a motherhood statement that is unlikely to improve job security for the workers involved.
Therefore the question I ask is, are such statements or, for that matter, is any clause in an EBA enforceable by the workers involved?
Sources say QRail has offered $10,000 (to be paid in two instalments to the workers who are close to 65 years) ‘which allows them to continue on the job‘ but they ‘can lose their job at any time under the new agreement‘. QR is seeking workers to sign away legal rights to job security.
Of course, such legal arrangements are not unique to QRail. Ironically, in 1993, QRail tried to keep a hold on its workers by offering bonus payments as an incentive not to seek employment in the private sector.”
This occurred at the Redbank railway workshops under a previous enterprise bargaining agreement. At the time, maintenance workers were covered by three unions — the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
In 1993, the Green Left Weekly reported that 600 union members at Redbank voted to strike to protect their conditions:
“The 600 workers at Queensland Rail’s Redbank workshops returned to work on February 3, after voting on February 1 to strike in protest at a pay offer from management…
Brendan Matthey, the AMWU state organiser handling the dispute, while not present at the meeting sent a recommendation that the workers suspend industrial action for 24 hours, return to work and meet the next day at 7.30am.”
How will workers react to this new attack on their conditions in the 2008 QRail Enterprise Bargaining agreements?
One retired QRail worker put it this way:
“QRail is going to use the current (industrial relations legislation) imposed by John Howard’s government, which establishes when the unions and QRail reach the agreement in all conditions.
This proposal will be discussed by the rank and file (and) if they reject this proposal because of the job security clause, QRail will be back to another round of discussion, and they (the workers) will start from zero again.
What is important in this situation is that nobody has been saying a word of what (is) going on. Also we can see that the ALP is using the weapon (of WorkChoices) against the worker left by John Howard. Maybe you can make a comment on (Workers) BushTelegraph.”
Recently the Labor government introduced the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Act 2008 to replace the WorkChoices legislation. Both the old and the new legislation are based on Enterprise Bargaining. [See WorkChoices Repealed]
Workers know that an enterprise agreement does not ensure job security.
There is no job security under enterprise bargaining, or under any form of capitalist trading over our labour power — the power to hire and fire resides with the master (boss).
Loss of Job Security under Enterprise Bargaining
There are numerous examples of how EBAs fail to protect the security of workers jobs.
This has happened to miners at Cobar in 1997:
250 miners were sacked in Cobar, NSW when the company closed its mine. This became known as the ‘Cobar option’, as the company made its employing arm insolvent to prevent its workers from getting their entitlements. Patricks used a similar ploy in the 1998 MUA dispute.
The 1998 Waterfront dispute showed that such agreements are not enforceable. The CEO of Patricks sacked his entire workforce in one night. No enterprise bargaining agreement prevented that. Later the MUA negotiated redundancy agreements for nearly half the workforce on the waterfront.
It was the government that paid for the redundancies, not the stevedoring companies (Patricks and P&O).
Ask the miners employed at the Gordonstone colliery in Queensland about the enforceability of union agreements:
ARCO illegally sacked 312 CFMEU members at Gordonstone. Miners lost jobs and entitlements. The workers have maintained a picket line at the mine for a record period in coal mining disputes to no avail. ARCO sold the mine to Rio Tinto which employs non-union labour. (See Appendix: A brief history of union responses to attacks on workers )
One miner at Gordonstone said:
“We had a legal agreement, a legal document signed by both parties, signed by us (the workers & their union – the CFMEU (Miners), signed by the company, they couldn’t work around that”.
Yet both the industrial relations commission (AIRC) and the federal court refused to enforce the union agreement and that miner lost his job with all the others. When Rio Tinto bought the Gordonstone mine new miners were employed under a non-union agreement. Rio Tinto then went to the Supreme Court and brought an injunction against the union to bring an end to the dispute. The tents at the picket line outside the mine were taken down reluctantly by the workers and the dispute was lost.
Only strong worker organisation can prevent job losses at QRail or anywhere else.
I encourage those workers, union organisers and officials involved in current disputes (like job security at QRail) to read “After the Waterfront – the workers are quiet” particularly the chapter dealing with “Industrial Relations Nightmare – course of action”
In that book we propose stronger worker organisation through the formation of Workers Political Organisations. You can read about these at Chapter 5: Arise ye workers from ye slumbers — New direction for unions