By Ian Jamieson
BURNIE — Capping a tumultuous week, striking Associated Pulp and Paper Mill workers voted on June 9 to return to work, ending for the time being a strike widely described as Tasmania's worst. The mass meeting endorsed a recommendation from ACTU president Martin Ferguson to dismantle picket lines imposed three weeks ago in response to an assault on union rights by APPM parent company, North Broken Hill-Peko.
Earlier, tensions exploded on the picket lines on June 4 when 400 mill workers confronted 55 police and 15 scabs at the main gate. Police had maintained a low profile until the company obtained a court ruling that they should break the picket line. Twice on the morning of June 4, the cops were pushed back despite more than 30 arrests.
For afternoon shift, a larger number of police formed a flying wedge and, after a 15-minute melee, managed to get the scabs through the gate. One picketer was hospitalised after being crushed.
Far from breaking the strikers' morale, the police assaults strengthened their resolve. Hundreds more mill workers and their supporters poured onto the picket line for the next 24 hours, but the scabs had had enough. The few who did get through the gates were apparently too ill to work, and were sent home after two hours.
The strikers were elated after their victory in what many called the Battle of Burnie. The company had lost another round, and public support for the strike had grown. Messages of support and promises of funds poured in from around Australia — with even the Tasmanian Police Association chipping in $10,000.
The union movement then began turning up the heat on APPM. The Transport Workers Union banned shipment of paper from the company's mainland depots, and the miners' union declared its intention to strike for 24 hours in solidarity.
It was clear both federal and state governments were becoming increasingly nervous about the course of the dispute. Christmas trees began appearing on picket sites, indicating the strikers' will to dig in for a long struggle.
At the instigation of Premier Ray Groom and federal industrial relations minister Peter Cook, the federal Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) called a compulsory conference, and the industrial relations machine began to grind out a secret deal. Some details of this only came to light after the vote to return to work had been taken.
The IRC waved a big stick to intimidate the ACTU, and through it the APPM workers, with deputy president Paul Munro threatening to use penal sanctions, massive fines and deregistration
In the aftermath, a smell of blackmail hangs over the final outcome. APPM will not withdraw its writs against union officials for six months, and even then only if the company is satisfied with the behaviour of the officials.
The first indications that all might not be right with the deal came on June 7, when Martin Ferguson would provide the media with no explanation of the settlement beyond the fact that a return to work was recommended.
The full terms of the settlement were concealed for three days, until a six-page document was handed to strikers at the June 9 meeting. Workers had two hours to decipher and vote on an agreement that took 36 hours to hammer out.
The terms of the "APPM-ACTU Workplace Reforms" agreement contain little joy for the workers. Touted as a necessary compromise by Ferguson, the resolution is widely seen as a victory for the company and its ideological allies in the Liberal Party. It focuses heavily on the company's competitiveness in the context of a shrinking market for its products.
"The sky's the limit", boasted APPM Burnie manager Ken Henderson, adding that the deal assures the company of "a demarcation-free workplace, employees are to work as directed, staff can operate the plant, set manning levels, freely use contractors, and there will be no union veto of management decisions".
Henderson added the agreement was better than one rejected two weeks earlier, and the company had not shifted its position since the dispute began on March 3. His remarks were supported by APPM public relations officer Chris Oldfield, who added that the company "had to have this dispute to get to the competitive position we can now enjoy".
Ironically, Ferguson also claims victory, pointing out that the company was forced to negotiate with the unions. While this may be a backdown by the company and a blow to the federal Liberal Party's Fightback program, the company appears to have won most of the other issues in dispute.
APPM workers now face the restructuring of their industry around them, with little or no say on their rights to job security. Probably 300-400 out of 1000 jobs are in jeopardy. They are likely to face changing conditions of employment, increasing use of contractors, and a harsher work regime. Working hours, pay, superannuation and many other issues can be expected to be on the table in coming negotiations. As well, many unionists fear victimisation over their roles in the dispute.
With good reason, most of the APPM workers have reacted warily to the settlement. However, the victory parties in the ACTU and APPM offices may be short-lived. The dispute welded hundreds of ned and resolute body. While the deal may be a setback, the strike created a force that will be difficult to control.
APPM solidarity concert
Even though the APPM dispute is settled for the time being, the NSW union movement is proceeding with a tour in solidarity with the Burnie workers. The tour will culminate in a fundraising concert and theatre evening at the NSW Teachers' Federation Auditorium on June 19, beginning at 7 p.m. Entry $10/$5. The group, consisting of one of the workers, a representative of the support committee and five actors known as Dr Quack's Travelling Medicine Show, will be in Newcastle on June 16, the South Coast on June 17, and Sydney on June 17-18. For further information phone Don McDonald, CFMEU, on (02) 267 3929.