By Peter Boyle
Mounted police charged meatworkers picketing an abattoir in Camperdown, in western Victoria, on October 26. Two women workers were trampled by the horses, and one picket was arrested for "hindering police".
The attack allowed scabs to be trucked in by the notorious body hire firm, Troubleshooters Available, to start up the first abattoir to be staffed by contract labour in modern times.
After some 50 scabs got into the abattoir, meat inspectors refused to work with them, though they finally gave in, allowing the abattoir to operate briefly that afternoon.
Troubleshooters has been preparing to take on Victorian meatworkers ever since it won a federal court case against the Building Workers Industrial Union in March. The court allowed contract labour to be used to break award conditions in the building industry. The National Farmers Federation provided $600,000 from its fighting fund to help with the court case. Troubleshooters executive director Peter Bosa says his firm intends to seek $6 million in damages from the BWIU.
Apart from the Camperdown abattoir, which closed down and fired its 130 workers in May, Troubleshooters intends to provide contract labour for another abattoir in Seymour. The Seymour abattoir will be run by David Groves, a former member of the Troubleshooters firm.
The campaign for contract labour in the meat industry accelerated in September when the Victorian Farmers Federation held a rally in Camperdown. It was picketed by the retrenched meatworkers and their families.
Victoria's meat industry has been disrupted by extended industrial action for the last two years, and there were violent attacks on picket lines in Wodonga in April.
While Troubleshooters, the NFF, VFF and some abattoir owners blame the workers for the problems, Bill Malcolm, a senior lecturer in agricultural economics at Melbourne University, says that the troubles arise from "attempts by some exporters to cut meatworkers' wages and conditions".
The Victorian meat industry conflicts have been used as an "ideological rallying point" by these forces, and they have taken advantage of several closures of Victorian abattoirs as a result of a shortage of livestock offered for sale in the state, he said. Central to the conflict was the relative advantage of the meat industry in Queensland, which was increasingly involved in large-scale lot-feeding. Victorian cattle, on the other hand, are mainly grass-fed.
Lot-fed beef fetch higher prices in the major export market, Japan, and Queensland exporters can ship chilled beef faster to Japan, earning a further premium. So some Victorian meat exporters were trying to extract the difference in profit margins from meatworkers. Abattoirs accounting for 30% of Victorian meat exports, on the other hand, had concluded mutually satisfactory arrangements with the workers, Malcolm added.
The meat industry had a rotten record of pay and working conditions until an industrial campaign in the 1970s won new award conditions. Victorian minister for agriculture Ian Baker told state parliament in September: "There are some people in this industry, if there hadn't been radical union activity, who would have children working up to their knees in blood and gore and offal".
Prominent families like the Angliss, Gilbertsons and Vesteys, he said, have made their fortunes and their so-called social status on the lost fingers and thumbs of workers, and the diseases that abound in the appalling conditions that have operated in this industry.
Two years ago, the Hawke Labor government ordered an Industrial Relations Commission inquiry into the meat industry following employer calls for a review of the meatworkers' gains from the 1970s struggles. This inquiry delivered its first report in September but it has yet to make any recommendations.
As for the Troubleshooters' court victory on contract labour, federal industrial relations minister Peter Cook promised the September ACTU congress that his government would pass legislation to prevent contract labour being used to break award conditions.
While the battle in the meat industry was already under way then, the ACTU resolved only to seek such government action and did not plan industrial action or solidarity with the meatworkers on isolated picket lines in country towns.