BY LIAM MITCHELL
SYDNEY After nearly 16 weeks on strike, 40 workers at can manufacturer Morris McMahon returned to work on July 2. They won a union-endorsed enterprise bargaining agreement and a number of improvements in their conditions.
The bitter dispute arose when management decided to change working hours, refusing to negotiate with the workers' union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
The factory had been operating a 10-hour work day, four-day week and management had wanted an eight-hour work day, five-day week. The previously agreed hours had never been registered with the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC).
The workers sought a 10% wage rise to compensate for the change in hours. They also wanted any new agreement to be legally binding and collectively negotiated with the AMWU. Management offered a small wage rise and individual contracts.
When the issue first arose, many workers were not members of the union. Union membership rose dramatically when management showed its contempt for the workers.
Most of the workers went on strike on March 12. Those who did not were joined by scabs from labour-hire company Frontline, who were bussed in and out each day.
The striking workers set up a picket line on an access road outside the factory which they staffed 24 hours a day.
For many weeks there were no discussions between management and the union, and solidarity with the striking workers grew, with officials and members of the Maritime Union of Australia and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union joining the picket line on several occasions. The MUA raised over $15,000 from a levy on its members for the strikers.
Other unionists and students often came to the picket to lend their support to the strikers.
The picketers started confronting the scab bus each morning, as well as the delivery trucks that would cross the picket line with it. However, the bus was allowed to drive through each time as the AMWU officials feared being charged with breaching section 171 of the workplace relations act, which prevents blockades of access for scabs to a work site.
The striking workers were told not to disobey the orders of the police (who were described by AMWU officials as "union members too").
After 10 weeks, the company had the police evict the picket camp from its property and put up a fence around the space the camp had occupied.
By this time, the AMWU and MUA were facing legal action over the picket line, with the company seeking $700,000 in damages from the AMWU. The union had a court order placed against it, preventing it from organising any action that would block the access of scabs or management to the plant.
On May 29, 80 people joined the picket line, and for the first time the scabs and trucks were forced to use the plant's rear entrance. The mobilisation was initiated by the Socialist Alliance and attended by a range of activists, including Greens MPs Sylvia Hale and Lee Rhiannon.
As the weekly mobilisations for the picket line grew in size, management agreed to begin negotiations with the AMWU. In response, AMWU officials decided to show they were "bargaining in good faith" by asking picketers not to try to stop the scabs entering the factory.
The negotiations dragged out until June 19, when the union and the company agreed to put the dispute to arbitration. The arbitration process dragged out for two weeks. The size of picket dwindled.
On June 27, the striking workers decided to call for the resumption of mass picketing. When management heard of these plans, it approached the union with an offer of an immediate settlement.
The deal that was eventually signed included a 5% wage rise each year for three years, a 19-day work month (to be implemented in 12 months) and a union endorsed agreement. The strikers also won the right of access to a union official, a tool allowance and other benefits such as paid meals for overtime worked and a paid afternoon tea break.