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ABC wage stoush: staff fact-check management ‘propaganda’

Aunty has finally found a presenter for its new fact-checking unit, but in the meantime staff are busy doing some fact-checking of their own — about their boss’ wage offer.

The ABC has finally announced a presenter for its new fact-checking unit: John Barron, who hosts Planet America on ABC News 24 and regularly fills in to present The Drum. He’ll be working alongside editor Russell Skelton, the former Fairfax journalist whose opinionated tweeting was dissected by Media Watch earlier this week.

Although the unit isn’t up and running yet, ABC staff have been busy fact-checking contentious claims this week. But it’s the truthfulness of Aunty’s management — rather than politicians — under the microscope.

Last month the ABC put its long-awaited wage offer, which will apply to around 4000 staff, on the table:  a 2% per annum increase over three years, with any improvements on that funded from cuts to meal allowances and shift loadings. The unions representing ABC workers speedily rejected it, saying it amounted to a real wages cut.

The ABC tried to calm the horses by sending out an email to staff clarifying that the 2% figure was an initial offer and might be improved. The email also included a raft of detail about ABC pay and conditions, including the eye-catching claim that average weekly earnings for Aunty staffers have grown by 29% since 2006 — more than any sector other than mining.

The horses most definitely were not calmed.

A stopwork meeting was held at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters yesterday, with around 200 staff in attendance. The star turn was ABC economics correspondent Stephen Long, who had been asked to run a ruler over management’s figures by the the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s ABC house committee.  His verdict: mostly false.

Crikey has independently obtained a copy of Long’s presentation, titled “Management’s Misleading Maths”.

People are concerned about management’s pay rise offer,” an ABC staffer present at the meeting said. “Even Fairfax in its anaemic state is paying above inflation — so is News Limited and SBS … There’s a lot of anger at constant overwork being dressed up as overskilling. Radio broadcasters are having to become website designers although they’re completely different skills. There’s a lot of anger in news and current affairs about journalists having to do desktop video editing.”

According to Long’s document, based on analysis of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Wage Price Index, ABC staffers have not outperformed workers in every sector except mining:

There was a 3.7 per cent annual increase over the past three years across the public sector. In comparison, ABC employees under the current EBA received annual pay increases averaging 3. 6 per cent: Well below the average pay rise for all employees and for public sector employees. Over the three proceeding years (2008-10) the average pay rises were even higher: across all sectors 3.8 per cent and the average pay rise for public sector employees 4.1 per cent.”

In the document, presented to ABC staff yesterday, the ABC house committee dismisses management’s figures as “misleading” and as “propaganda”. Crikey understands Long, who declined requests for comment this morning, is not a member of the house committee.

Staff at the meeting passed a resolution saying: “We reject ABC management’s sub-inflation wage offer and call on the ABC to provide a fair offer that recognises our productivity gains.”

UPDATE: An ABC spokesperson told Crikey today:

The ABC has been fully transparent with its staff during these wage negotiations and completely rejects the suggestion that management are trying to mislead staff.  All of the ABC’s communications with staff have been factually correct. Stephen Long’s flyer mostly refers to the Wage Price Index, which is an entirely different economic measure and not one which the unions or the ABC have ever referred to as part of these negotiations. The ABC’s communications with staff have only ever compared its wages against inflation (CPI) and Average Wage Ordinary Time Earnings (AWOTE) -  which is consistent with the practice generally adopted by most employers in these types of negotiations.

In any event, over the last two agreements, the ABC’s cumulative collective wage increases have grown by 24.8% - as compared to the ‘All Industries’ Wage Price Index which grew by 25% (this included the mining sector).  Perhaps the more relevant Wage Price Index comparison for the ABC is the WPI for the Information Media and Telecommunications sector - which only increased by 20.8% over the same period. The facts are that wages growth at the ABC in recent years has outperformed inflation and our own base line funding. This is simply not sustainable.”

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