Locked-out Boeing workers demand collective agreement
Ruth Ratcliffe, Newcastle
The federal Coalition government's Defence White Paper in 2000 described the FA-18 fleet as the single most important component of Australia's defence infrastructure. Yet the workers who maintain the jets at Williamtown RAAF base outside Newcastle have been locked out for over six weeks after protesting Boeing's refusal to negotiate a collective agreement.
For the last four years, workers at the site have been employed on individual contracts. Earlier this year, 42 of the 62 maintenance workers decided they wanted a collective agreement and called the Australian Workers Union (AWU).
Under Boeing's individual contracts, workers face a 43-hour week, no overtime and no leave loading. Pay increments are based on six-monthly appraisals. The AWU's collective agreement, on the other hand, would include higher guaranteed pay rises, longer leave entitlements, increased job security, protection from unfair dismissal and equal pay for equal work.
The workers were stood down on June 1 after refusing to fill in time sheets. Since then, apart from a two-day period when current industrial relations laws forced them back to work, there has been a 24-hour picket at the RAAF base gates. "Instead of talking to their workers about a new collective agreement that is supported by a clear majority of employees, Boeing chooses to refuse them work", AWU Newcastle branch secretary Kevin Maher said on May 19.
The June 17 edition of Workers Online quoted Williamtown workplace delegate Adam Szady as saying: "[PM John] Howard says that it's about freedom of choice, well, we've chosen to have a collective agreement. We're not after money, but after the better conditions of a collective agreement."
The 26 Boeing employees who have continued working, including 10 apprentices and 14 contractors, have been pressured to work harder. Boeing has also brought in 17 scabs from the non-unionised Amberley base in Queensland, whose lack of training in this specific work has significantly delayed the maintenance of the FA-18s.
Romuald Orzeszko, one of the locked-out workers, told GLW: "They refused to talk to us because we wanted the union to negotiate for us. The union didn't approach us; we asked them to get involved." According to fellow worker Anthony Pannor, "Boeing belongs to an association, the industry association. They have a company lawyer. So why can't we have the union involved on our behalf?"
"'If you don't like [the individual contract], you go' — that's what they tell us", Orzeszko said. Yet despite Boeing's tough stance on individual contracts, workers report that is has taken up to eight months to fill many positions at the Williamtown site. Since the picket started, four potential employees who were invited to interviews refused to cross the picket line.
Some Boeing sites in Australia, including Bankstown and Port Melbourne, are covered by a collective agreement, whereas others, such as Amberley, are not. Boeing employees at Bankstown earn $25 an hour; until the lockout, Williamtown workers were on $16 an hour.
The Boeing workers fear that many others could be in their situation if Howard's IR "reforms" go ahead. Pannor said: "I'm not here only for me — in a bigger sense we're here for all working people in the country. My daughter is on an individual contract and she works a 60-hour week, but life is not just for working. If Howard gets his way, the younger generation will be working 80-90 hours a week with no conditions and no rights".
The 42 workers who were originally stood down have also been joined by 23-year-old Gonzalo Sanjuan, who walked out to join the picketers as soon as he finished his three-month probation with Boeing, saying it was "a matter of principle".
The Boeing workers have received support from many quarters, including NSW Premier Bob Carr, federal Labor leader Kim Beazley and Labor MP Peter Garret. They've also received significant support from the local community, with many visitors to the picket line. A family day on July 3 was attended by 200 people, and a local pub is donating the proceeds of its weekly raffle to the strike fund. "The support has been fabulous, enough to make you cry", Orzeszko said.
Workers are asking people to email Boeing's CEO at <email@example.com> to encourage him to negotiate a collective agreement. Donations can be made at the picket line at the Williamtown RAAF, Medowie Road. For more information on the campaign visit <http://www.williamtown.org.au>.
From Green Left Weekly, July 20, 2005.
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