Aussie IT unions rise from the dead

Australia's creaky technology unions have finally awoken from their long slumber and have started to throw theirweight around.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor

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Renai LeMay

commentary Australia's creaky technology unions have finally awoken from their long slumber and have started to throw their weight around.

Like decaying mummies sleeping in an ancient Egyptian tomb, the likes of the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia and the Australian Services Union have languished for the past decade under the odious yoke of the Howard government.

Sure, they have emerged briefly on select occasions over the years to grope blindly towards the management of titans like EDS. APESMA's kerfuffle with the Texan giant back in 2005 was a solid example of the fact that the unions weren't quite dead.

Some, like the Communications Electrical and Plumbers Union, have also been fighting a running battle with Telstra as the opening up of the telecommunications market in 1997 has meant the nation's largest telco has had to continually take the scalpel to large sections of its workforce.

But by and large they've gradually sunk deeper and deeper into obscurity until most local technology reporters would have had a hard time remembering the last time they spoke to a real, live union representative.

The problem has been particularly evident as the ICT industry has gotten back on its feet after the dotcom bust in the early years of this decade. It's a simple mathematical equation: as salaries and job satisfaction rise, enthusiasm for unions fade away.

Eventually people give up and join conservative associations like the Australian Computer Society.

However, the dark Howard years are at an end, and Australia's technology industry is now in a new era: one in which top-level government officials such as Labor Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard are willing to back the unions in their disputes with giant corporations.


Gillard's comments to Telstra earlier this month when Telstra tried to push its luck with Howard's doomed Work Choices legislation should have left the telco in no doubt as to the kind of new environment in which it was operating.

"I don't think it is in [Telstra's] interest to be trying to squeeze the last bit of bitter lemon out of Work Choices," Rudd's second in charge said, adding the planned new industrial relations model would be fair and balanced.

"It will certainly say to Telstra and to other companies that if a majority of the employees want to try collectively bargaining, then the employer has to join them at the bargaining table and have a go at it in good faith," Gillard told ABC Television.

Then there's the potential strike action looming over IBM's head at a key Baulkham Hills facility. A recent ZDNet.com.au story about the issue attracted quite a lot of attention.

Big Blue's spin team has been in full flight, attempting to reassure the press that nothing is really going on, but we've heard the union action is all IBM staffers can talk about in water cooler discussions around the nation.

Fair enough, HP's ambitious EDS move has not yet roused workers at the Texan giant's Australian operation, but we expect that slumbering beast to raise its head shortly: perhaps when the "moves, adds and changes" begin?

Lastly, the Communication Workers Union of Australia has certainly made its presence felt in the final death throes of ailing local firm — and Telstra offspring — Commander.

All of this adds up to a disturbing picture for Australian technology managers. It's already an industry constrained by labour shortages, and if the unions get involved in more negotiations, finding and keeping the right staff for less than a king's ransom could become an even greater problem.

It's certainly a nightmare scenario that fast-growing challenger IT services firms like SMS Management and Technology, UXC, ASG and Oakton would be well-advised to keep a close eye on.

IBM, EDS and Telstra already have decades of experience in dealing with unions, and sometimes breaking them. Likewise with mammoth IT departments operated by the likes of the Commonwealth Bank.

Younger firms — and there is a plethora of them — along with smaller IT departments and telcos, need to consider how increased unionisation could affect their ability to do business.

On the flip side, it's a great time to be a non-management IT professional of any shape or size. You're probably already getting paid through the wazoo, you can work from home or part-time, and with the unions by your side, things are only likely to get better. Party on, comrade.

What do you think about IT unions ... a waste of time or a godsend to tech workers? Post your comments below.

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