Locked out Yallourn workers need solidarity

November 4, 2006

Forty-nine workers at the largest workshop in the Latrobe Valley have been locked out for almost three months by Mechanical Engineering Services (MES). As soon as he'd locked out the workers, the company owner, Anthony Elliott, went overseas for several weeks.

MES, which is owned by Elliot Engineering, arrived in the Latrobe Valley about 20 months ago when it bought out the Skilled Engineering workshop. At the time, MES guaranteed to abide by employment agreements already in place.

Sid Grimmer has worked at the workshop for 44 years. He told Green Left Weekly, "We thought Skilled Engineering was bad but this is worse". Since Elliot's takeover, workers have experienced an erratic and repressive management, he said.

On one occasion, the boss punched an Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) organiser and was charged with assault. On another, the boss sacked someone for joining the union and then faced an unfair dismissal case.

At one point, the boss announced that there would be no leading hands. Overnight, workers who had been leading hands for years dropped $180 per week in pay. In October 2005, Elliott Engineering restructured the workshop and axed jobs.

The current dispute began when unions tried to negotiate a new enterprise agreement for the workers before the old one expired on March 31. The owner responded that he would wait until the new federal industrial relations laws came into effect.

Once these laws were passed, the company produced a draft agreement that took away important conditions such as income protection, salary continuance and rostered days of; cut redundancy pay from 28 to eight weeks; and cut the pay of first- and second-year apprentices. Union members rejected the draft and in an Australian Electoral Commission-organised ballot, 37 of the 41 workers voted to take protected industrial action.

On September 12, the company told the workers that they would be locked out for three months. The 49 who were locked out included four members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and five casual workers, despite the dispute being about the AMWU's enterprise agreement.

On October 20, the company sent letters to seven workers summonsing them to return to work, but only if they accepted the conditions of the old metal trades award, which were well below the conditions of the old enterprise agreement. The workers were advised that if they didn't return to work under the company's conditions their employment would be terminated. Since that day the workers have been on strike.

They have set up a tent embassy outside the workshop gates and would appreciate visitors and support. Messages of solidarity can be sent to the Yallourn Workshop Embassy via the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council at <http://gippslandtlc.com.au>.

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