The Guardian April 12, 2000

Building industry 36-hour week "unstoppable"

Victorian building workers were "in sight of total victory" after a 
number of employers agreed to union demands for a 36-hour week and improved 
wages and conditions.

John Sutton, Secretary of the Construction Division of the Construction, 
Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), told The Guardian that on 
Tuesday last week four building companies signed the agreement with the 
union for a 36-hour week, bringing the total to five companies covering 
about 20 sites and involving thousands of workers.

When Mr Sutton spoke to The Guardian on Thursday last week, there 
were 11 more companies negotiating with the union that were on the verge of 
signing the agreement, he said.

He said the unions now had "the critical mass" needed to win the dispute. 
"It's unstoppable. There's no way it can be turned back now ... we're in 
sight of total victory."

The employer organisation, the Master Builders' Association (MBA), was also 
caving in, he said.

Whereas initially the MBA had been confident of defeating the unions, and 
had taken an aggressive stance by trying to organise a lock-out of workers, 
Mr Sutton said the MBA had indicated it was now "prepared to look at the 
agreement", a sign it was "capitulating" to their demands.

Mr Sutton said there was a parallel process taking place with the 
Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) preparing to arbitrate 
the dispute.

At the request of the MBA, the AIRC became involved and exempted 215 
construction companies from the bargaining period on the basis that it was 
going to arbitrate a settlement for those companies.

However, Mr Sutton believed that, with the signing of the unions' agreement 
with a significant number of companies, the AIRC may not proceed with 
arbitration for the other companies, but prefer to let the industry settle 
for itself.

Responding to the MBA's criticism that the 36-hour week and the demands for 
extra days off would not deliver a shorter working week, but just mean 
increased overtime payments, Mr Sutton said that the unions have demanded 
shut-down days, mainly attached to long-weekend holidays, so no-one could 
be made to work on these days off.

The union agreement is an important win for all the building unions 
involved, a complete victory would be a major blow to the Federal 
Government's agenda to de-unionise the construction industry  the next 
major target it had set for "reform" after the attacks on the Hunter Valley 
miners and the Maritime Union of Australia.

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