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SPC deal with workers to cut pay to save jobs has led to calls for union involvement in negotiations over these awards

ANDREW SHOLL: The ability of workers to make deals directly with management on wages and conditions will be tested in the Industrial Relations Commission today. SPC, the Shepparton fruit canning company, has made a deal with its workers which removes some award conditions, saving the company $2.5 million, and so maintaining its viability in keeping the workers' jobs. But the deal was struck without consultation with the unions involved, and is now being bitterly opposed by the trade union movement. David Burgess reports.

DAVID BURGESS: This whole SPC deal has become a political football. It's not the deal itself that's important any more; it's what it stands for. The National Party is calling for it to be a beacon for others to rally around, and employer groups obviously want it to be a model for the future - cut pay to save jobs. Regardless of the deal's merit, the problem for the trade union movement is the flow-on effect in these times of recession. Unions claim not to be against individual enterprise deals. In fact, these are now being done in the building industry to save jobs. It's just that the unions want to be directly involved.

That's the argument that will be put to the Industrial Relations Commission today. The Victorian Trades Hall will ask the Commission to direct the parties to go away and negotiate. Brian Boyd, an industrial officer with the Trades Hall, will put the case today.

BRIAN BOYD: We'll fight it all the way through the Arbitration Commission system, legally, and fight it all the way, very hard, because we just can't afford the companies easily to get away with such a rogue activity. We really want to put a fence around it and get a handle on it.

DAVID BURGESS: What about the High Court? Are you willing to go that far?

BRIAN BOYD: Yes. Yes - we'll consider that. We've already talked about that. We'll take it all the way if we have to.

DAVID BURGESS: What about industrial action if you don't see yourself getting any satisfaction? Over the past couple of weeks there have been a few hints that possibly you could put some bans on, you could boycott the company, you could try and isolate them completely.

BRIAN BOYD: Look. Yes. Our thinking, at the moment, is to emphasise negotiation and try and find a settlement. It's always the right of unions to consider industrial action, but, at the moment, it isn't on our agenda.

DAVID BURGESS: It's not on the agenda, but it is something you might consider?

BRIAN BOYD: Well, it's always there. We insist - even though there's been recent decisions to the contrary - we always insist that workers have got a right to strike and a right to industrial action, and because of the wider ramifications of this issue, it is always there. But that's not our emphasis. Our emphasis is on negotiation and finding an amicable settlement.

DAVID BURGESS: Are you at all concerned about public opinion? There've been some polls taken and it shows, well, about 80 per cent of the people are against the official trade union movement stance on this.

BRIAN BOYD: Well, I've seen those poll results and, in fact, I'm not unsympathetic to them. It's a reasonable thing for any person to say that there should be an emphasis on saving jobs, and, in fact, the unions involved at SPC want to save jobs, but it's the way we go about it that's crucial. The company has gone, on its own, to make up a secret deal behind the union's back, and we really want to bring back into the system the proper forum of employer-union negotiations and sort it out there and find a proper compromise that everyone can live with.

ANDREW SHOLL: Brian Boyd, from the Victorian Trades Hall Council.