By David Mizon
MELBOURNE — Of 74 maintenance and boiler house workers who struck for three months last year over health and safety issues and in support of their sacked shop steward, only 29 remained when maintenance workers at Hoechst's Altona plant resumed their normal duties on January 22.
The other 45 workers elected to take the redundancy package offered by the company, which provided between $140,000 and $180,000 to those who wanted to leave.
The company's got the majority of maintenance workers to take the package largely by forcing them to remain at an off-site "retraining and re-education" course for over seven weeks. This violated the agreement to settle the dispute, which said that the workers would remain off site for a maximum of two weeks.
However, in their eagerness to obtain an agreement on restructuring, metal worker union officials agreed to a further four-week course. The company used this extension not as a retraining session but as an opportunity to continue its psychological warfare against the remaining maintenance workers.
Central to this was that the maintenance workers accept 12-hour rotating shifts, work with scabs (who were currently performing their duties) and staff performing their work when required.
After six weeks of browbeating the maintenance workers, the company felt confident enough to reissue the redundancy offer, with the threat that refusal to accept the company's proposed working conditions would mean the sack.
The maintenance workers' reply was to refuse to go to the off-site venue and report for normal work. This forced the dispute to be heard in the Industrial Relations Commission. The IRC, despite its original ruling that no change to existing working conditions be made without consultation with the rank and file and the union covering them, directed the workers to start work on rotating 12-hour shifts alongside scabs. However, the IRC put a five-week limit on continued employment of the scabs.