By Stefan Skibicki
and Bernie Brian
WOLLONGONG — Members of the Liquor Trades Union (LTU) and Transport Workers Union (TWU) working in the canteens at BHP's Port Kembla steelworks have voted to remain on strike indefinitely over plans by their new employer, Advanced Food Systems, to reduce the 108-strong workforce by 40.
The jobs of all existing workers are under threat because the new canteen contractor wants to bypass seniority and declare all positions vacant when it assumes control of operations on February 14. The workers, mostly women, have been on strike since January 29 and decided to stay out when told last week that the company now intended to reduce staff numbers to 58.
The Canadian-based firm says it will be selective in employing new staff and wants a "new culture" in the workplace. Advanced, a self-declared "industrial relations expert", was given the canteen contract because BHP wants to end its previous policy of subsidising canteen facilities.
The new contractor would shut all but two canteens and drastically reduce operating hours. Mobile food vans would service much of the steelworks with a reduced variety of prepackaged food at steeply increased prices.
The canteen workers have set up a 24-hour protest camp outside the main gate, and have received many indications of community support. Steel unions are moving to hold talks with BHP. "We have an agreement with BHP on the hours and service of canteens throughout the steelworks, and if the company wants to change that then that will be subject to negotiation", says ironworkers' union (FIMEE) branch secretary Graham Roberts.
The South Coast Labour Council has lodged a formal protest with the Anti-Discrimination Board over discriminatory redundancy offers. The current employer, Spotless Catering, "has refused to offer us the Voluntary Retirement Scheme [VRS] and some women who have been employed for up to 30 years will only receive a 26-week redundancy payment", LTU delegate Carmel Delahunty told Green Left. "We work in the same conditions as the rest of the male steelworkers, but we aren't offered the same VRS.
"Advanced came down here gung ho, and they thought they were going to fix this mob up, and they got the shock of their lives. At the moment we're dug in and we're staying. We expect to be ordered any day now to face a compulsory arbitration hearing.
"Gradually, we are making ground with all the support we are getting from the public and other unions. Advanced has now accepted that seniority will apply. However, every time we make ground, Advanced throws up a further obstacle."
Delahunty says that BHP "is very much behind the scenes of this dispute. They need not have made the contractual arrangements they did, and we believe they made them deliberately because our women ditions and a clean and healthy working environment.
"The main thing we're after is jobs. We have single mothers and widows who are very distressed, as well as women whose total wage goes towards their house payments. The already criminal unemployment problem in Wollongong will be magnified unless we win this dispute."