CUB workers 'standing up for all of our rights'

Socialist Alliance councillor in Moreland Sue Bolton suppoorts the CUB workers picket.
Friday, August 19, 2016

Carlton United Breweries' (CUB) attack on its maintenance workers was clearly premeditated.

The brewery forced workers to do large amounts of overtime to build up its stock before sacking 55 maintenance workers on June 10.

Although the 55 workers were told they could reapply for their jobs through a new contractor, they were not told who the new employing contractor would be or what their new terms and conditions would look like.

Meanwhile, CUB had secretly recruited temporary workers from interstate to replace the sacked workers.

When the Electrical Trades Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union eventually forced CUB's new contractor, Programmed, into the Fair Work Commission (FWC), they discovered Programmed planned to hire workers on an enterprise agreement that was based on the minimum safety net award plus 50 cents.

When applied to CUB maintenance workers who work rosters around the clock, seven days a week, the agreement amounts to a 65% cut in real wages.

Under the agreement, the highly-trained maintenance workers would be paid as if they were low-skilled workers. CUB electricians, who are required to work at the top skill level, would be paid an entry-level wage.

In addition, the enterprise agreement is a common law agreement rather than an industrial agreement. This would prevent workers from having access to FWC.

The only way any clause of a common law agreement can be enforced is by individual workers taking civil action against the contractor.

This tactic has been used by some companies in Western Australia as a way of attacking workers and their right to take collective action, but it is unprecedented in the eastern states.

The sacked workers are fully aware that there is a lot riding on the outcome of their dispute.

It is believed that there are about 30 enterprise agreements that companies have put on hold while they await the outcome of this dispute. If CUB gets away with its tactics, other companies will follow suit.

Workers told Green Left Weekly: “We just have to hold out one more day than CUB. The footy finals are coming up, when they'll need lots of beer and supplies are low.”

Since the workers were sacked, there has been a high turnover in the temporary replacement workforce. The work is highly skilled, meaning not just any fitter or electrician can walk in and operate the machinery.

Generally, new maintenance workers were assigned to day shift for 12 months to learn from others how to operate the machines.

The replacement workers have not been able to maintain production at the plant.

CUB's parent company, SAB Miller, is a massive multinational that controls a large share of the international beer market.

While it is attacking its workers in Melbourne, SAB Miller is also attacking its Indian workforce at the Sonepat brewery in the state of Haryana, India.

The Indian workers have held mass protest actions in response to management's refusal to respect collective bargaining rights.

The protest at the CUB gates is growing, with scaffolding erected to provide shelter for the workers and a stage for rallies. It is clear the workers and their unions do not intend to go anywhere until they win a just outcome for the workers.

The workers have been steadfast. It takes a lot of courage and commitment to be sacked and continue to get up at 4am every morning and do a full day's stint at the protest site for 10 weeks straight.

Some of the workers' partners have experienced pressure from people in the community who do not understand unions and were questioning why the workers did not just look for other jobs. The workers have had to educate their families and other people in their communities about why they are taking a strong stand against CUB's anti-worker tactics.

On the other hand, the picket has received incredible support. The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union and the Western Australian branch of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) have both made donations of $50,000 to support the workers. The MUA Sydney branch donated $12,000.

Community donations of food are frequently arriving at the picket and craft beer brewers have been donating beer to the workers.

The weekly Thursday protests are growing in numbers, and the visible show of solidarity from a range of unions is helping keep morale high.

Several pubs are boycotting CUB products and there are reports that CUB's profits are plummeting and that they may not be able to cover the AFL finals season.

This could really hit them where it hurts, especially as we approach spring, when the atmosphere really hypes up around the finals and people start holding barbecues and parties, with the upswing usually carrying on until Christmas.

If production keeps slipping, it might force the issue into the media and become a tipping point in this dispute.
Last week, the company finally agreed to talk to the union. This indicates that the company is beginning to realise that the workers are not going away, and that they are going to have to deal with the unions.

All these factors are lifting spirits among the workers and giving them confidence about the potential to win this dispute.

Some workers were involved with the previous dispute at CUB seven years ago, when the company sacked all the workers and brought in a contractor.

In that dispute, the workers managed to inflict enough embarrassment on the company to win back their jobs without loss of pay or conditions.

That would be the ideal outcome for this dispute as well.

The union movement and the community must support these workers who are standing up for all of our rights, not just their own.

One thing is sure: I'll be standing beside them all the way.

[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance councillor in Moreland.]

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