By Steve Painter
It seems Associated Pulp and Paper Mills (APPM) is bent on replicating the New Right's most spectacular assault on trade unionism to date — the 1986-87 lockout at the Robe River iron ore operation in WA.
APPM last week tore up most of its agreements with its work force, including some that affect health and safety, claiming they constituted restrictive work practices. Like Robe, APPM is a subsidiary of North Broken Hill Peko.
Some union sources suspect that APPM intends to close down its large but antiquated Burnie mill if it fails to get its way. Slashing working conditions, pay and health and safety standards is probably the only way the company could wring a satisfactory profit out of its ageing plant short of a large injection of capital. APPM's 1990-91 profit was a healthy $31 million, down from around $54 million the previous year.
The company may be hoping to sack the 1100-strong Burnie work force and then re-employ part of it on contract. It could be banking on many workers being desperate if they lost their jobs: the mill is the largest employer in the area, and the local economy relies heavily on it.
Workers at APPM's other plants, in NSW, Victoria and elsewhere in Tasmania, are also under attack as the company attempts to bypass the unions and force individual contracts on its employees. Until early March, the company appeared to have no in-principle opposition to unionism, as it was negotiating with them for enterprise agreements covering its operations.
By mid-March, however, the federal Industrial Relations Commission's Justice Paul Munro observed that the company "perhaps is even trying to provoke a dispute. Maybe they want to get your members into a breach of contract situation, sack a plantful of them and then be able to focus the minds of the remainder that they want some fairly dramatic results fairly quickly."
It seems the company realised it was losing out in competition with more modern plants in North America and cheap labour operations in Chile. As well, APPM's industrial tantrum is probably calculated to increase pressure for resource security legislation and a go-ahead for a new, environmentally dirty kraft bleach mill at Wesley Vale or elsewhere.
On April 10, the company took another step towards head-on confrontation when it began sacking workers at Burnie. The immediate victims were boiler operators who refused to work with improperly qualified staff on safety grounds. Hundreds more walked out when the company attempted to use inexperienced staff to refire the boilers.
Claiming it wants to establish an atmosphere of mutual trust, the company is now threatening to sack workers who attend stop-work e.