A group of construction workers in Somerton have proved that it is possible to get off an individual contract (Australian Workplace Agreement — AWA) and onto award rates and an enterprise agreement.
Metal construction workers building the new Coles distribution centre were forced to sign AWAs that dramatically undercut their wages: they were being paid $18 per hour casual rate and their penalty rates were being undercut.
Some of the workers were referred to the job through a Centrelink Job Network member. Under the federal government's Welfare to Work breaching system, they were threatened with losing their benefits for eight weeks if they refused the position. Also, some workers were asked to sign a 20-page AWA, which they had seen only on a computer screen.
The AWAs might have been a clever device for the boss not to pay the building industry award, but the workers weren't going to put up with that. Striking outside a bargaining period is illegal and AWAs are supposedly binding contracts. So, all the affected workers simply resigned en masse and protested outside the distribution centre gates.
Their employer sought legal sanctions against the workers, claiming that the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union was organising an illegal strike. The case was thrown out. The workers weren't on strike, but had resigned and were protesting against their rotten conditions. They were hoping to be re-employed on the industry standard rate of pay.
The company refused to budge. While Coles was not the direct employer, it was happy to allow a contractor to rip off the workers.
At 6am on May 13, in the fog, a community assembly formed outside the main gate of the distribution centre. Security and amazed truck drivers were informed that nothing would be going in or out until 10am, and that's what happened.
Protesting by the construction workers and the community assembly had the desired effect. After some argy bargy with the union, Coles and the contractor agreed to pay the correct rates and the workers were re-employed.
Workers on the site have scored a $10-per-hour increase and a host of other benefits that come with working on a union enterprise agreement linked to the correct award. Victory doesn't get much sweeter than this.
[Fiona Taylor is a member of Union Solidarity in Melbourne.]