Telstra workers went out on a strike for the second time in two months on Monday February 9. Following on from a four-hour stoppage late last year, unions called a 24-hour strike. Rallies were held outside Telstra offices across the country to demand Telstra re-enter negotiations for a union agreement that gives workers union rights and decent pay. Workers in Perth confronted CEO Sol Trujillo with placards showing his face on a $13,400,000 dollar note—the total of his yearly salary.
The Electoral Commission has recently called on the company to stop holding ballots for non-union agreements as they don’t meet the minimum standards of “free and fair” elections.
Despite this huge show opposition from its workforce, Telstra has confirmed they will continue to push staff onto non-union agreements. Telstra management have broken up up the workforce into tiny areas and pressured workers individually to sign onto agreements, telling employees there is no chance of a pay rise unless they vote yes to the agreement. Some ballots are for groups as small as four workers.
The company’s submission to Labor’s Fair Work Bill inquiry argues that unions should have no right to bargain on behalf of employers, and calls for further erosion of unfair dismissal laws. They are desperately trying to hold onto the free pass WorkChoices gave them to ride roughshod over workers’ rights.
Since privatisation, Telstra’s workforce has slipped from almost total union coverage to around half. Newer workers’ conditions are nothing like those on older union agreements. An increasing number of workers are employed through labour hire firms, Telstra’s attempt to escape union pay rates and conditions.
Most of this erosion has been met with little resistance from the unions that represent Telstra workers. A non-union agreement could consign them to irrelevancy. It is time that the unions put up a fight. The outcome of Telstra’s push is significant for workers across the country—a win would boost workers’ confidence at a time when the crisis threatens wages and living standards, and be a shot in the arm for the union movement. The 24-hour strike is a step in the right direction. But more will be needed if Telstra workers are to come out on top.
By Amy Thomas