BY SIMON MILLAR & LINDA WALDRON
MELBOURNE — June 4 will be the 100th day on the picket line for Electrical Trades Union (ETU) members at Smorgon Steel in Laverton.
The dispute began on February 25, when 25 full-time electricians downed tools after enterprise bargaining negotiations for a 36-hour week broke down. The majority of the electrical contracting industry has already won the 36-hour work week.
The electricians were in-house employees until 1994, when Smorgon Steel outsourced its maintenance work force. The electricians were re-employed as contract labour by TAD Industrial, which is a subsidiary of ADECCO and IES Australia.
Negotiations between the ETU and the two contracting firms ran smoothly until Smorgon Steel threatened to terminate the contractors in order to strong-arm them into refusing to sign.
ETU members responded by taking protected industrial action — implementing an overtime ban and starting their shift one hour later than the usual time and finishing one hour earlier.
TAD Industrial brought in other electricians to scab, but they left the site as soon as Smorgon Steel shop steward Ronnie Goodfellow explained the dispute to them.
Smorgon Steel's recruitment of scab labour deeply angered the electricians, some of whom had worked at the plant for over 20 years. They responded by voting to strike until the contractors signed the agreement.
The steel plant is only functioning because eight supervisors with electrical licences and six apprentices are trying to cover the work of 25 qualified electricians. One supervisor is a contracted draughtsperson who hasn't touched the tools in 15 years.
IES Australia has hired extra apprentices to cover for the striking electricians. ETU organiser Gerry Glover told Green Left Weekly that "these scabbing supervisors are risking the lives of the apprentices".
There have been reports that a trades assistant did unsupervised work in the high voltage section of the plant. When the ETU picketers pointed out the risk of apprentices being killed, the human resources manager declared "we will do whatever it takes to run this plant".
The plant is notorious for workplace fatalities, with as many as five deaths in the previous decade.
The 350 in-house machine operators, members of the Australian Workers Union, are refusing to support the picket line. However, individual AWU members have given financial support to the picketers. One anonymous member donated $3500.
Machine operators inside the plant report that productivity is down by as much as 50% and the company's share price has dropped.
IES Australia has now sought federal writs against its striking employees for loss of income at $15,000 a week. In mid-April, TAD Industrial organised a secret ballot for a non-union agreement. This tactic backfired when the TAD Industrial workers unanimously rejected the non-union agreement.
The secret ballot result reflected the resolve of the ETU members to fight for a 36-hour week and for the ETU to continue representing them. Ronnie Goodfellow, the ETU shop steward, declared that, "the dispute will not be over until the 36-hour week is won!".
The ETU is taking out legal action against Smorgon Steel for coercion as it is illegal for Smorgon Steel, a third party, to interfere in negotiations between the ETU and the contractors.
The Smorgon Steel picket line is at 105-120 Dohertys Road, Laverton.
From Green Left Weekly, June 4, 2003.
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