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
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
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
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
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?