Foster's dispute concludes

March 21, 2009

Maintenance workers from Foster's Carlton and United Brewery have had a partial victory in their dispute with Foster's over jobs. The workers are covered by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU).

In February, at the height of the bushfire crisis that some of the maintenance workers were helping to fight, Foster's told the maintenance workers their jobs would be outsourced to maintenance contractor ABB.

Workers were told that if they wanted to keep their jobs, they had to apply to ABB for employment, with substantially lower pay and conditions.

About 20 to 25 of the workers buckled and applied for the jobs. Most workers voted to demand that ABB to take the workers back on their pre-existing pay and conditions.

On March 12, the workers set up a community protest outside the brewery gates.

Within a couple of days, the brewery suffered widespread break-downs in machinery. The plant was producing a small fraction of the 1 million slabs of beer normally produced each week.

The racking plant, which makes kegs, was closed down for several days because of machinery breakdowns. Some of the workers estimated that Foster's had only one week's worth of beer kegs with which to supply Melbourne.

The machinery breakdowns were a result of sacking an experienced work force and replacing it overnight with a scab work force that was formally qualified, but not experienced in maintaining the brewery's machines.

Foster's clearly did not appreciated the experience the work force had built up. Over the years, the AMWU and ETU had won good working conditions as well as good wages, so workers tended to stay at Foster's.

Many had worked in the brewery for more than 20 years. One had worked there for 48 years.

The breakdowns forced ABB to shift in the negotiations as pressure from Foster's grew.

Eventually, ABB agreed to take some of the workers back on pay and conditions similar to what they had when employed directly by Foster's. The workers had conditions including a 35-hour week, all overtime paid at double rates and relatively high hourly rates. It seems workers will keep these conditions.

On March 20, the workers voted to accept the new agreement with ABB. Workers will still need to apply to ABB for their jobs. Those who don't wish to apply for their old jobs will get a pay out from Foster's.

The unions expect ABB to employ all the workers who want to return to their old jobs, in order to get production running again.

However, a large number of workers don't want to return to their old jobs. They regard Foster's as having spat on the service they had provided to the company over many years.

Foster's provoked the dispute despite making a profit of more than $700 million last year.

The brewery workers were disappointed that they didn't stop the outsourcing of maintenance work, but they recognised that they had won a partial victory.

AMWU organiser Chris Spindler told Green Left Weekly: "There is no way the workers would have recieved such a good outcome if they hadn't set up the community worker protest. ABB found it hard to find many maintenance workers who would cross the protest line while workers were outside fighting for their jobs and conditions."

Workers also got a lot of support from other brewery staff. Operators, who are covered by the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union, organised collections and kept the picket line supplied with tea and coffee, and information about what was happening inside the plant.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.