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Australian Unions Strike Over State Reform Bid

ABOUT 100,000 people shut down the center of Melbourne Nov. 10 in protest against the radical industrial reforms of newly elected Victoria State Premier Jeff Kennett. The demonstration was said to be the largest since the Vietnam War, and thousands more participated in smaller rallies in cities and towns across Victoria.

In mid-October, the Liberal-National Party coalition's Kennett won a landslide victory over Labor, promising great changes in industrial relations but vowing that no worker would be made worse off.

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The Australian Council of Trade Unions joined with the Trades Hall Council to call this state-wide strike two weeks later after Mr. Kennett presented his sudden hard-line industrial relations agenda to Parliament.

Kennett's agenda included:

* A decision to dump the 17.5 percent bonus that workers get on top of holiday pay, in recompense for lost overtime. And workers would no longer get extra "penalty" pay for working weekends.

* Sweeping anti-strike legislation, limiting industrial actions to five days and only after a secret ballot. Pickets would be limited to six workers, and unions that disobey would be hit with hefty fines. Critics say these provisions would virtually outlaw strikes.

* The cancellation of the present system of state-set minimum wages and working conditions. Starting March 1, employers and employees would have to decide whether to rejoin the present system or enter into individual or collective agreements. Compulsory unionism would be illegal.

Victoria, the home of manufacturing, is a union stronghold. It is also the state that has been hardest hit by both the recession and the collapse of several state and private financial institutions.

What is at stake here and around Australia is the power of the unions and the federal arbitration board that sets wages and work conditions. The Labor Party has been making changes in industrial relations; the opposition wants to go faster but perhaps not as fast as Kennett. Federal Liberal-National leader John Hewson has not thrown his weight behind Kennett's policies.

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The unions say this is only the start. John Halfpenny, secretary of the Trades Hall Council, has promised union action every day until Kennett backs down.

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