An uneasy peace hangs over the Australian car industry today following settlement in the steel supply dispute and a return to work of striking workers at GM affiliate Holden, writes Mike Duffy.

The fourth major disruption within a year may have been avoided – and by only a day – but Holden, Toyota, Ford and Mitsubishi are far from optimistic there will be lasting peace.

An estimated 70 component manufacturers are due to begin negotiations with workers for new in-house enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) over the next year.

Many have the capacity to halt production in a year all four manufacturers are launching big-budget new models and embarking on lucrative new export programmes.

There is major concern that Australia’s hard-won reputation for exemplary industrial relations has already been seriously damaged.

Ford Australia president Geoff Polites said his bosses in the US were starting to call Australia “strike country”.

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And that has prompted Polites to threaten to buy all Ford#;s steel from Nippon Steel if there are any further supply disruptions.

The national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Doug Cameron, is seeking the support of car and component makers, employer groups and governments to take part in an industry summit in a bid to find a formula for lasting peace.

He claims the dispute at BHP Steel, which involved only 300 workers, was not about “union intransigence”.

Cameron said car companies had been successful in achieving a system of enterprise bargaining under which individual companies negotiate agreements site-by-site with their workers.

“The problem now is a crazy, disjointed attitude to bargaining,”’ he said. “We want to sit down and talk about this – the car companies and workers are victims of enterprise bargaining and hostage to the uncoordinated, deregulated approach.”

He said a more appropriate system was pattern bargaining where unions negotiated with a peak body, or one agreement was taken as a template and applied to the rest of the industry.

The dispute at BHP Steel in Victoria – and strikes at other component manufacturers which have affected local car makers – underscore the problems inherent in the concept of enterprise bargaining.

The move away from centralised wage fixing was supposed to give workers and manufacturers the facility to negotiate better pay and conditions in exchange for productivity gains.

The system is not working and the Federal Government appears to be sitting on the fence, refusing to play a role in fixing a flawed system it put in place.

On Monday, Holden, Toyota and Ford are expected to return to normal production. Mitsubishi has had to bring forward a programmed day off, scheduled for later in the month, because it does not have stocks of all grades of steel necessary to build its cars.

As one CEO, who does not want to be named, concluded: “We have peace only until the next EBA breaks down and a component manufacturer goes on strike.

“Forget about an industry summit – that will achieve nothing. We need the Federal Government to revisit the Industrial Relations Act and find solutions for a system which is not working.”