One of the Latrobe Valley's longest-running industrial protests has ended. Former employees at Mechanical Engineering Corporation's (MEC) Yallourn workshop left the site on the June 16-17 weekend after a 277 day protest.
The protest ended after the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and 32 former MEC workers commenced legal action against their employer, Mechanical Engineering Services (MES), a week earlier to secure their full redundancy entitlements.
The union and the workers filed a statement of claims in the Federal Court, seeking redundancy entitlements as well as penalties and damages for a breach of employment contract. Former employee John Scholtes said workers could now get on with their lives while their case is fought out in court.
Most of the workers have found other employment. Workers set up a round the clock protest at the gates of MEC after they were locked-out during a dispute over a new enterprise bargaining agreement in September.
MEC was placed into administration in January and employees who refused to return to work under Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs — individual contracts) were later sacked.
MEC tried to ban the workers from protesting at the gates but failed. Scholtes praised his fellow former workers for their resilience during the 40 week protest. "It's easy to walk away but it takes strength and guts to stand up for your rights and do something like that", he said.
"I think they've become stronger and wiser for it and have learnt from what happened here that solidarity works."
Protesters stayed on site throughout Christmas, Easter, the summer bushfires and the start of winter. Gippsland Trades and Labour Council (GTLC) secretary John Parker said it was a "big effort" to protest for so long.
"You only have to stay in a motel room for a few weeks and you can imagine, these aren't motel rooms", he said.
"They had to stay until such time as we were able to get them into the courts. The workers have to show an incredible amount of determination to get into the courts now because there isn't the arbitration system which allows these matters to be resolved."
Parker said the 40 week dispute would have gone for no longer than four weeks if it was dealt with via arbitration under the old industrial relations laws. "Because of the nature of IR laws today you've actually got to have a continual presence. These workers have had to actually sit on the line for 40 weeks. They went without working, every night and every day."
AMWU organiser Steve Dodd said the workers were seeking the entitlements they would have received under employment with the workshop's former owner, Skilled Engineering. "They were guaranteed through a contract of employment [with MES when it took over the workshop] that their terms and conditions would be maintained — we're chasing the entitlements they would have received under their contract of employment", he said. "It is a significant amount of money that's owed to these guys."