THREE UNIONS have lodged applications with the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), challenging Telstra’s proposed Employee Collective Agreements, but Telstra did not attend an AIRC hearing on 1 September.
“Telstra's management has shown contempt for both the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and its workforce by not turning up today,” said ACTU Assistant Secretary Chris Walton after the hearing. “That shows it has no respect for the institution of an independent umpire or for the democratic right of its workers to be represented by a union in negotiations over their pay and conditions.”
Telstra’s legal counsel maintains that the AIRC has no jurisdiction over the dispute, as the conditions of both the Telstra Enterprise Agreement and the dispute resolution provisions of the WorkChoices legislation require consent of both parties before entering into mediation.
According to an anonymous witness at the hearing, AIRC Senior Deputy President Brian Lacy has ordered that a copy of the transcript of the hearing be sent to Telstra, with the corporation given until Friday last week to formulate its response. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has claimed that collective agreements offered to workers in the Telstra Wholesale and Service Advantage divisions breach minimum requirements of the Workplace Relations Act.
Telstra has since published amendments to the proposed agreements. The ACTU has labelled the revisions an “embarrassing backdown” by the national telco.
Telstra Group General Counsel Will Irving said the revised provisions provide the standard four weeks annual leave and also offers employees 15 days personal leave annually, of which up to 10 days can be taken as carer's leave.
According to the Telstra spokesman, the original draft clauses contained preserved award arrangements that were higher than the minimum entitlements set out in the Act. Irving denied that the original or subsequent agreement drafts were in breach of the Act,
“The recent statements by the ACTU that Telstra’s proposed Employee Collective Agreements were in breach of minimum entitlements are false,” Irving said. “This continues a recent pattern of conduct in which the ACTU has demonstrated a failure to understand the law in its dealings with Telstra.”
ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence is spearheading a major campaign to return Telstra unions to the bargaining table, with support from the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU), Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia (APESMA).
“Since Telstra walked away from the negotiating table, the 70 per cent of workers covered by the current enterprise agreement have been denied their choice to be professionally represented in bargaining,” Lawrence said. “Without unions negotiating for staff, who knows what else is wrong with the proposal and how are workers’ rights protected.”
Both side’s positions appear intractable without AIRC intervention. Telstra has accused the unions of coercing the telco into signing side agreements which contain prohibited content and are not in compliance with the National Code of Practice for the Construction Industry and Australian Government Implementation Guidelines.
In a letter to Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo, the ACTU has proposed mediation between the parties under both clause 26 of the Telstra Enterprise Agreement 2005-2008 and Division 4 of Part 13 of the Workplace Relations Act 1996.
The unions have requested that the Commission order and supervise a secret ballot of employees on the form of replacement agreement for the Telstra Enterprise Agreement 2005-2008.
The ACTU application to the commission calls for intervention, claiming that by calling off negotiations with the unions, Telstra has failed to adequately consult with employees and the unions over proposed changes that could affect employees’ terms and conditions of employment. The application states that “hundreds” of calls have made by employees to Telstra human resources about the issue.