In a strange way I felt sorry for ACTU President Ged Kearney after her KGB interview. She is a genuine person caught in a new world and dealing with forces outside her historical nursing union experience. But in the process she is in danger of gambling with the jobs of many tens of thousands of Australians (KGB: ACTU's Ged Kearney, July 12).
Strangely it is the ALP that did much to take us into this new world first via floating the dollar (Paul Keating) and then by slashing tariffs (Julia Gillard and others).
In this world General Motors in Detroit can make cars in many countries and is simply not prepared to have a plant in Australia with work agreements that are incompatible with the rest of the world. However General Motors has agreed for an independent person to check the books, on a confidential basis, to confirm its sums.
Then next month an agreement will be put to GMH workers and, if they reject it, then General Motors will cease making cars in Australia. (Decision made: GM will shut without a labour deal, June 20).
It is unlikely that Toyota could continue alone so the whole automotive manufacturing industry then shuts. Ged Kearney and the Australian Workers Union are playing for big stakes.
That new agreement will take control of much of the management of the plants away from unions and put it back to management. Yet Ged Kearney clearly believes unions should have control over rosters and similar matters – that’s the way it works in nursing.
Detroit requires that rosters and similar matters be a management matter – if the company requires employees to work overtime or at the weekend then that becomes part of the job albeit that penalty rates apply in Australia.
It appears Detroit also wants a 10 per cent pay cut. Maybe that can be overcome with some deal related to the dollar but as things now stand Ged Kearney told the KGB that the proposed agreement was unfair and she went very close to saying she would not recommend it. She wants more time etc.
It’s true that simultaneously there is a government negotiation where more taxpayer dollars look like being required. General Motors would be very stupid to seriously compromise its labour agreements in exchange for even more money from taxpayers.
If the workers do agree I think there is a very good chance we will keep our automotive industry. Tony Abbott has said that, if elected, he would continue payments if there was a productivity agreement and a firm export deal. Australia is a leading global maker of rear wheel drive cars so there is an export market available.
What must really scare the union movement is that if General Motors workers agree to an agreement that is globally compatible (while complying with Australian law) then we will have an agreement which many manufacturing companies and some miners will seek to use as a precedent.
Unions will no longer be in control. We have lost Ford partly over this issue (there were also management mistakes) and more than 10,000 miners have lost their jobs in part because overseas prices no longer allow bad management and uncompetitive labour agreements, particularly on productivity issues.
Of course what makes both the government and unions angry is that Detroit is playing hard ball with timing and making its thrust in the middle if an election campaign. It’s a new world for Ged Kearney.
Footnote: Ged Kearney and I agreed that nursing paperwork was one of the most wasteful areas in the country. We were not attacking the nurses but the systems. She wants to use, in hospitals, the computer systems that are used around the country. I know some hospitals are doing using iPads etc. but it’s rare and it would seem that the blockage is poor hospital management. There is a big reduction in costs on the table and while extensive staff training is required, unions, at least at the top, do not seem to be the problem.