A Lesson from a TelCo Centre: How IT workers defeated an individual contract

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Protesters waving placards and yelling slogans from a megaphone. Marching in the streets, massed anger and strength in numbers. Unionised, mobilised and determined collective strength. This is hopefully how most people envision a labour movement with the power to overturn the Howard Government’s WorkChoices regime. Inspired, organised action has created fearsome warriors prepared to stand together and demand their hard-earned pie (all of it!), time and time again.

As the greatest challenge to hit Australian workers in decades strips our rights and depletes our lives, more resistance is brewing in the outer suburbs of south eastern Melbourne. Workers in a 24-hour IT shift operation in Australia’s largest (and as yet unsold) TelCo have shown unexpected defiance.

The IT profession is contradicted. It’s largely non-union, often young and mostly male. In the early 1990s, conditions which unions fought so hard for — the eight-hour day and meal breaks — were quickly traded for a promotion path and a bit more money. The macho, anti-union corporate culture of our outsourced customers inevitably penetrated our work environment. As we struggled to meet their demands, we found our own conditions quickly driven down, Wall Street style. Lunch breaks disappeared, and endless shifts, night work and ridiculous hours quickly became the norm. Our corporate employer carved out its ideal workforce — young, raw, skilled and uncontaminated by unionism!

Even so, an idea common among IT workers is that they are being bribed to accept ever-worsening conditions, each small pay rise accompanying an added indignity. So staff levels keep shrinking as workers leave, and our workloads increase. Managers and team leaders always drip-feed us with threats about our performance in relation to our job security to keep us wound up tight.

Employed in this individualistic, stay-or-run environment, I once held little hope for mobilisation. As one woman among many men, new to the union and radical politics, I felt that the overwhelmingly conservative views of my co-workers had doomed us all. After all, without the strength of a collective, what individual would stand up and be counted? Being sacked from a “well” paid job is no less disastrous than being sacked anywhere.

Then, one day, we all received a gift. A strange sort of gift. You couldn’t eat it, or wear it, and you certainly couldn’t sign it! No one was particularly happy when it dropped in their laps. The entire team sank into a gloom as each of us studied our new Australian Workplace Agreement. We should be rapt with the pay rises, but what about the new 24-hour shifts that would turn our lives upside down?

Presented as the greatest breakthrough in employer-staff relations since the cat-o-nine-tails, our employer hailed the AWA as the warm and fuzzy contract you’d love to sign — infinitely “flexible” to suit jobs of every shape and size.

As our boss handed the documents to us, we were told that, although technically they could be negotiated, we might as well accept that he would not change a single letter of a single word of a single paragraph.

As shift workers, we weren’t prepared to sign such outrageous contracts. Thirty-six and a half hours a week averaged over a year? Not good enough. Removing protection for penalty and overtime rates and leaving them to the caprices of our managers? No thanks. We felt like Human Resources had simply downloaded the free version from the internet and then photocopied it 14 times!

As we agonised over the little pay increase and the awful contract, our manager waited and waited. Seven days passed, then 10, then 15 and not a single contract was returned. We started to quietly check with each other: “Have you signed? No? Good, don’t sign.” It was the closest thing to collective action I’d ever witnessed in my eight years of working in IT. For management, a staff who was acting as a group, difficult to replace and clearly didn’t have our minds on the job when our performance was being tracked closely by a critical customer delivery group, this was a disaster! Our manager backed down. He called us to a team meeting, admitted the contracts were unacceptable and promised to revisit the issue with Human Resources.

In the end, Human Resources refused to reissue an AWA to the 24-hour shift staff. No surprises there. To keep us content, we received pay rises without having signed new contracts, and they were backdated. We were even offered the option of going onto an Award agreement, and these are currently in negotiation. The team leader admitted that the new AWAs were not only unreasonable, they were completely redundant, as our existing agreements – whatever they were – would continue.

So why were we pressured into signing them in the first place? Well, we know the answer: to empower our corporate employer and disempower ourselves, in line with the WorkChoices changes. In other words, they were trying to pull a fast one on us!

A bunch of white collar IT folks dug their heels and refused to sign a bad contract, because they could. What does this really have to do with the struggle that often erupts when low-paid workers, replaceable and vulnerable, defy the odds and march out together? Shouldn’t we all drop pens and march?

Yes! The lesson from my workplace is that collective resistance works. We now have a taste of its power. The next step is to unionise and turn around the corporate culture that atomises us.

And what of the expendable workers queuing up for jobs at the new Sydney Spotlight store? Their “work choice” is Dickensian conditions or unemployment. Their struggle tells us all that the union movement must stand up to each attack on any workforce. We unionists must pressure our unions to call a national general strike and revive the labour movement as the fighting force that is so needed. IT professionals must shake themselves out of their stupor, put down their palm pilots and pick up their placards. Our struggle is not unique. It’s tied to everyone’s. And when the herd moves, the earth will shake

Catherine is a member of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

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