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Confrontation over ACTU's direct wages negotiations; printers union case before the Industrial Relations Commission may be first casualty

PETER THOMPSON: The ACTU's direct action wage campaign is gaining momentum with offers from some of the biggest employers, but there's also a serious tactical difference between two of the most influential unions. The Amalgamated Metal Workers and the Ironworkers are now caught in a game of hawks and doves. And while they manoeuvre, the militant printers union goes back to the Industrial Relations Commission today, with the prospect of becoming the first union casualty of the wage campaign. Our industrial reporter, Gareth Robinson.

GARETH ROBINSON: In New South Wales, printers in the packaging industry have been on strike over wages for a week, although, of the five plants involved, one resumed work yesterday. At the same time, the dispute spread to Victoria, where another three factories were taken out for stoppages of up to 24 hours. The Commission has already warned the PKIU it could be expelled from the wages system - thus losing any benefits from it - unless the disruption is dropped immediately. The Commission has also said the union is breaching the no extra claims commitment it made in the national wage case of August, last year. But ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty, recently told the Commission the unions had never made open-ended commitments to no extra claims. So the stage is set for more confrontation, today, between the ACTU and the Commission.

As for the printing employers, they're claiming to be in their worst position for two decades. Their representative, Tom Chambers, says the wage offers made this week, by BHP and ICI - and a partial offer, now, by Kodak - don't have a bearing on the position of his industry.

TOM CHAMBERS: Well, I think some of the statements about BHP and ICI have been misquoted somewhat, because they have stated that any wage factor they've spoken about has been tied to specific returns in the form of productivity and other matters. Now, that kind of thing is not involved in the PKIU claim. In fact, the current claim that's being made, and the subject of the strike, is simply a wages grab for $34 a week increase in over-award payments. It's really got nothing to do with increased productivity or anything else.

GARETH ROBINSON: Tom Chambers, who'll be in the Industrial Commission, today, in Sydney. As that hearing gets under way, the various wage tacticians in the metal industry are likely to be pondering the latest in their struggle. The ground is shifting, with a split looming between the right-wing Federated Ironworkers and their longstanding left-wing opponents, the Amalgamated Metal Workers. Earlier this week, the national secretaries of the Ironworkers and the Engineers - who are, together, planning an amalgamation - held some quiet talks with metal industry employers.

Those talks produced what the protagonists call indications that there might, after all, be room for some sort of agreement on wages in a sector with 400,000 workers. But the talks also raised the ire of the Amalgamated Metal Workers, who saw them as representing a split in union ranks. Yesterday, the seven metal unions met, with the Ironworkers pushing for further wage negotiations under a conciliatory approach. The Metal Workers' camp has a preference for more action because the employers have consistently rejected their claim.

The man who chaired yesterday's meeting is Bob Davies, Assistant National Secretary of the Ironworkers. He says the meeting arrived at a compromise resolution which provides for a national strike in a fortnight unless negotiations bring satisfaction.

PETER THOMPSON: Gareth Robinson, in Melbourne.