Peace deal on the horizon in council pay dispute
Industrial action called off as majority of staff reach agreement with council
UPDATED: Wednesday, May 25, 2022
MORE disruption to Moreland Council services has been avoided after planned industrial action by some council workers was called off at the eleventh hour on Tuesday.
Leaders of the little-known Municipal & Utilities Workers Union had threatened a three-day strike from Wednesday, potentially torpedoing the pay deal negotiated between the council and unions representing the majority of its staff.
But the strike on Wednesday was cancelled following a long meeting on Tuesday afternoon where MUWU members are understood to have indicated that they did not want to stop work and were happy with the offer on the table. It is now unlikely that action planned for Thursday and Friday will go ahead either.
The MUWU is a breakaway union from the much larger Australian Services Union and has the backing of controversial CFMEU secretary John Setka, who is a polarising figure within Victoria’s labour movement. It is not a party to the current enterprise bargaining agreement with Moreland Council but is entitled to take protected industrial action under federal workplace laws.
Both the ASU and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation have reached in-principle agreement with the council over the long-running pay dispute but have yet to put the new deal to a vote of their members.
On Tuesday, the council had warned that if the industrial action by MUWU members went ahead, it would cause “significant disruption” to weekly household rubbish collections in the northern parts of the municipality, including Coburg North and Pascoe Vale, and prevent public rubbish bins being emptied.
Members of the ASU and the ANMF had already put further industrial action on ice after a breakthrough in talks with the council.
It is understood the council tabled an improved offer following the direct intervention of chief executive officer Cathy Henderson in the negotiations earlier this month.
The improved offer was met with unanimous approval by members of the ANMF and 85% of ASU members at meetings a fortnight ago but is yet to go to a vote for final endorsement.
An ASU spokesman said the new offer constitutes a pay increase of between 3% and potentially up about 5% for its members in the first year and was much better than any other wage outcome in a Victorian council for some time. Over the life of the three-year agreement, council workers would see their pay go up by almost 10%.
The council has also met another key demand of a set span of hours for library workers.
“While there are elements of it that we are disappointed with … the overwhelming majority of ASU members believe it is a good offer, and we expect it to easily be voted in over the next couple of weeks by staff across Moreland Council,” the union spokesperson said.
Council services have been impacted by workplace bans and stoppages since late April.
The trigger for industrial action was the council’s initial offer of 8% over four years which unions said failed to recognise the role staff had played as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Union members were especially unhappy with the offer of just 2% for 2021-22, which was well below the inflation rate of 5.1% over the past 12 months.
Industrial action began on April 20, with restrictions on street cleaning and sweeping, such as clearing street litter bins, litter pick up, and collection of garbage on council reserves.
This led to overflowing rubbish bins in the city’s most heavily trafficked areas, including the Sydney Road and Lygon Street shopping strips, before the council hired non-union contractors to clear the mess.
On Tuesday, the council warned of “significant disruption” to household rubbish collection in suburbs north of Bell Street from the planned MUWU industrial action.
It said collection of waste from public bins would also be delayed until at least Saturday, and drainage works, roads maintenance and tree maintenance services would also be affected between Wednesday and Friday, with those services only taking place in the event of an emergency.
“We apologise for the impact to the Moreland community,” the council said in a statement.
“Recent enterprise bargaining negotiations at Council have seen us come to agreement with two out of three unions.
“Unfortunately, one union does not support the proposed agreement. All council staff will be able to have their say on the proposal shortly.
“In the meantime, the federal Fair Work Act allows bargaining agents to take protected industrial action.”
The ASU spokesman said the agreement at Moreland would set a new benchmark for local government workers in Victoria.
“We are proud of the tenacity and resolve of our members and delegates to stand up and be respected at work, and we expect to work constructively with Moreland to continue to improve the working lives of all ASU members at the Council into the future and hold them accountable wherever ASU members are being disadvantaged,” he said.
The MUWU did not respond to requests to comment for this story, but other media has reported that the union is seeking a fixed $50 a week pay rise for its members.
The union has also criticised “secrecy” around the salary paid to Ms Henderson.
According to documents lodged with the Fair Work Commission in preparation for the current industrial dispute, the ASU has 264 members at Moreland Council, while the MUWU has 100.
The union was formed in 2019 “as a result of many workers voicing their long-term dissatisfaction with the way they had been represented”.
Its officeholders include former ASU state secretary Brian Parkinson who was ousted from his previous union job in controversial circumstances.
In 2020, the MUWU was provided with office space at the CFMEU headquarters in Elizabeth Street and Mr Setka has been a prominent supporter of the breakaway union.
Mr Setka was also photographed last week speaking at an MUWU members meeting outside the Moreland Council offices in Coburg.
This story was updated on Wednesday, May 25, after planned industrial action was called off.
Disclaimer: the author is a member of the MEAA and the ASU.