By Dick Nichols
SYDNEY — A small paper products plant in the outer Sydney suburb of Emu Plains has become the latest battlefield in the ongoing drive to break the back of Australia's already weakened trade unions.
On March 4, at Vista Paper Products, new boss John McNamee sacked 70 of his workers when they refused to sign a piece of paper that would have pledged them to working an extra five hours a week for around a dollar an hour less, losing all their rostered days off and giving up the right to collective negotiation through their union, the Printing and Kindred Industries Union.
Such is the arrogance of the employing class these days that McNamee sacked the workers after they had concluded their negotiations under the Structural Efficiency Principle, which requires trade-offs for wage increases. These negotiations had been conducted with Vista's previous owners (Visyboard) but with McNamee's approval.
But McNamee reckoned he could squeeze out more from the workers by bringing them face to face with the threat of the dole queue.
He began his attack with a move that he knew must bring a union response, bribing three workers into working under contract. The bait? The three were given the vast bulk of the overtime, which had previously been spread across the whole workforce. Inevitably, the move provoked several stoppages.
At the end of the last of these stoppages, McNamee made his next move, locking out the workforce and requiring each worker to agree to his new terms. Yet, despite the threat of unemployment — at least 8000 in the Penrith region can't find work — the workers voted to strike and place Vista under a 24-hour picket.
According to PKIU organiser Frank Rew, "they had nothing to lose. Many have worked for Vista for 20 years, and everyone knows there are no jobs for older workers out there."
All the usual threats have been brought to bear against the workers, in particular the use of the notorious section 45D of the Trades Practices Act. Nevertheless, the picket holds firm and has slowed production at the plant. According to the picketers, production is running at about 25% of capacity, and the management has been unable to commission a new machine which it hoped would solve all its problems.
(What production there is at Vista is due to the presence of eight scabs and the fact that some drivers are not heeding Transport Workers Union requests not to cross the picket line.)
Despite the small numbers involved, no-one thinks this is a trivial dispute. From his side, McNamee is getting support from the Australian Chamber of Manufactures, which partly explains his refusal to accept any form of arbitration or any offer made by the PKIU or the ACTU.
The dispute goes to the Industrial Relations Court on April 19. The workers believe that if they get any sort of satisfaction from the decision, it will be because their five-week-long picket will have demonstrated their determination not to have the fruits of generations of struggle wiped out at a stroke.
Donations and messages of support should be sent to: Vista Pulp and Paper Lockout Fund, c/-PKIU Federal Office, 594-596 Crown St, Surry Hills NSW 2010.
To arrange for Vista workers to visit your job, ring 02 211 4433 and ask for Frank Rew or Tom Burraston.