Australian Firms Try One-Union Labor Contracts Reducing Management-Worker Conflict Improves Competitiveness. EMPLOYEE RELATIONS

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FIVE years ago an Australian manager would have been certain to cause a strike by asking a worker to perform more than one job.

Today, David Jenkinson, manager of Southern Aluminum's Bell Bay, Tasmania factory can ask workers to do almost any job. The difference is that the factory, which makes aluminum wheels for the Japanese auto industry, is a newly constructed plant and its workers are all represented by one union.

"The advantage of one union is that people can work to the limits of their capability versus the limits set by demarcation," Mr. Jenkinson says.

This change is a major shift in industrial relations here. Almost any new factory or company can negotiate to have only one union represent its workers. Corporate managers are catching on:

* Optus Communications, which will be the second telecommunications provider in Australia, will negotiate with only one union. Its competitor, Telecom, has 15 unions.

* Toyota Motor Company in Melbourne will have only one union at a new plant it is building. At other factories, it has eight unions. Melbourne-based Ford Motor Company, Toyota's chief rival, is pursuing an enterprise bargaining agreement in which all the unions within a Ford plant are seen as one group receiving the same wage award. Ford's unions will remain separate, though.

* The Daimaru Australia department store in Melbourne has signed a draft agreement for a single union to represent employees who would normally be separated into four to five unions.

The change is taking place with the blessing of organized labor. "We've encouraged it. There is no question about that," says Max Ogden, an industrial officer at the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in Melbourne.

The difficulty of coordinating wage awards with changing technology is driving organized labor's support. "There is too much potential for conflict," explains Mr. Ogden. For example, a worker on a shop floor may have to enter information into a computer terminal - a process which may have been done by a worker from a different union in the past. …