NBN needs workers on board

Without consensus on labour issues, the eventual winner of the NBN may end up as little more than a lame duck and a cashed-up symbol of the conflict between the desire for progress and the lack of mechanisms to deliver it.

Several months ago, after one of my columns about the NBN process, I got a call from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), which wanted to follow up on some of the points I had raised.

Even before I heard questions like "could anybody but Telstra build the NBN?" I knew the reason for their call: as a major civil works project, this contract gives the unions unprecedented opportunity to assert themselves. They already know their plan; they're just fine-tuning the details to extract maximum leverage.


(Credit: Yarik Mission, Royalty free)

It's hardly a surprise. After 11 years in which Howard-era changes to workforce policies effectively sidelined the unions, traditionally more-friendly Labor policies and a stronger union presence now will give new raison d'etre to the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU); Australian Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia (APESMA); Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and others.

All have been defanged in the face of the strong push towards individual worker contracts, and all must be feeling new resolve given their ongoing battle with Telstra, which has steadily alienated itself with the unions through its reported refusal (depending on which side you're listening to at the time) to engage in collective bargaining negotiations.

The human side of the NBN is something that has been lost in the endless to-ing and fro-ing over policy theoreticals, but — as with the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Melbourne's CityLink and other major civil projects — it will ultimately play a significant role in the contract's success or failure.

No matter whether Telstra, TERRiA, Optus, Acacia or anybody else wins, it will take a cast of thousands to drill holes, run lines, string fibre, make and test connections, troubleshoot, configure, commission, sell, and maintain the whole shebang.

Since the jobs are likely to be contracted out, it's probably going to be the same pool of people doing the actual work in the end; Telstra techs may know wiring, but construction skills are concentrated in other companies. Still, Telstra has continued to shed staff in their hundreds, with Optus recently following suit with 115 cuts from its network division.

With a potentially massive contract hanging just out of reach, it's amazing that Telstra and Optus feel they don't need these people; who will build the NBN in the end? The answer, of course, is "the same people" — but they'll come back into the fold as contractors rather than employees, carrying the inherent lower cost base and disposability that comes with not having your own named space in the company carpark.

These members do, however, have recourse. Unless Howard's workplace reform has already diluted the unions' memberships, they still hold the key to completing the NBN in anything resembling decent time. Karma may well come back to bite Telstra and Optus on the posterior if and when the CEPU kicks off what was previously described as a "highly likely" series of rolling strikes against Telstra (for which it this week applied for formal permission).

If history is any guide, stop-works by the CEPU's 10,000 Telstra employees will be timed to coincide with seasonal peaks such as support spikes in activating the many iPhones and BlackBerrys Santa will leave under the tree this year. Emergency calls will still get priority, we're told, but everything else will be the equivalent of trying to navigate your new Hummer through Friday rush-hour traffic on Hoddle Street (for those of you outside of Melbourne, just think about horrible gridlock).

It's safe to say that no matter who wins the NBN contract, we can expect some union obstruction as workers push for more favourable conditions

To make life even harder, the CPSU, APESMA and anybody else with a grievance is guaranteed to make their voices heard through stop-works and other disruptions that will raise big question marks over the smooth implementation of the NBN.

There's no telling whether Senator Conroy is talking with his workplace relations counterparts to push through legislation for facilitating the NBN, but I think it's safe to say that no matter who wins the NBN contract, we can expect some union obstruction as workers push for more favourable conditions — and entreat the telcos to stop laying them off by the dozens.

What a shame that, less than three weeks out from the NBN submission deadline, we can already see suggestions of the troubles that await. Heck, despite having a definite interest in success, iiNet's Michael Malone has even come out calling the whole exercise a "monumental failure" in progress.

It's even more galling because Australia's inability to resolve this deadlock is starting to make us look pretty stupid in the eyes of the rest of the world. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said as much during his recent visit to Australia, where he fronted investors alongside Sol Trujillo and, responding to a student who asked how Australia was supposed to participate in cloud computing initiatives without faster broadband, said "it's time to get on with it" ("it" being the rollout of faster broadband).

It certainly is time. However, as we're likely to see in the leadup to year's end and well through 2009, the unions, government, Telstra, and its competitors all have different ideas about just what "it" is and, more to the point, how we can actually get on with it.

Without consensus on labour issues and a more constructive relationship with the people who will be putting the fibre in the ground, the eventual winner of the NBN may end up as little more than a lame duck — a cashed-up symbol of the conflict between the desire for progress, and the lack of mechanisms to deliver it.

Are you union? Are you not? What concessions do you think it will take for the NBN to be built?


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