By Ian Jamieson
BURNIE — At the end of an eventful week, the Liberal Tasmanian government and the Labor federal government indicated they were losing patience with Associated Pulp and Paper over its failure to resolve the dispute at its mill here. Premier Ray Groom and federal industrial relations minister Peter Cook said it appeared all the issues in the dispute were close to resolution, and requested both unions and company to attend a meeting. Groom backed the statement with a suggestion that the company might be jeopardising its access to state timber resources.
For their part, striking workers voted by almost 1000 to 40 on May 29 to maintain their picket after hopes of a settlement had been dashed when the company withdrew a previous understanding just 20 minutes before the meeting. The strikers' morale remains strong despite attempts by the company to divide the workforce.
On May 27, ACTU president Martin Ferguson raised hopes of a settlement when he told 1000 picketers and their supporters he had thrashed out a three-page understanding in secret negotiations with NBH managing director Peter Wade. The deal laid a basis for resolving issues including union recognition and representation, training of staff in the operation of boilers under federal safety regulations, agreement that there would be no recriminations over the dispute, agreement to drop civil charges and writs, and a pledge to discuss workplace reform at all levels. Ferguson hoped that the understanding he announced on May 27 would lay the foundation for a return to work on May 29, but it was not to be.
The main outstanding problem was the company's refusal to negotiate with self-employed log truck drivers, members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), whose contracts APPM was proposing to tear up. This would leave many facing a heavy burden of debt, and result in a scramble for sub-contract work in the company's plantations.
The drivers are pressing the company to recognise its responsibilities to them. Most went into debt to buy rigs in the early '70s on the assurance of contracts to haul logs from company plantations to the mill. Now that the company needs fewer trucks, it simply proposes not to renew contracts, financially ruining some operators.
While the drivers and the TWU recognise that there are too many trucks, they are seeking a compensation/redundancy deal to enable some drivers to retire in economic security and debt-free. TWU state secretary Ken Bacon estimates the company would save around $16 million annually by halving the number of trucks, while drivers forced to leave the industry without compensation would do so with an average debt of $70,000. The state and federal governments are willing to contribute around $1 million to a redundancy deal for the truckies, but the company is offering nothing.
Despite the problem of the truck drivers, other parts of the Ferguson-Wade understanding appeared to indicate a lot of movement from the company's initial refusal to negotiate with the unions and its insistence on individual contracts with its workers.
But while the May 27 meeting ended on a hopeful note, the company's attitude appeared to harden shortly afterwards. As the unions tried to press on with negotiations, workers began receiving letters threatening dismissal if they didn't return to work. Most of the letters ended in firepots on the picket line.
The company also made a determined push to divide the strikers, holding secret meetings with a few workers and backing a "Right to Work" committee, which organised a public meeting against the strike. While there are varying estimates of the numbers involved in this company-backed push, there are certainly no more than 50 APPM employees out of the 1000-strong workforce.
Picketers scoffed at the few workers who had joined the company manoeuvre despite having never raised their views, or even voted for a return to work, at very democratic union mass meetings. "If they never had the guts to vote, they certainly won't have the courage to break the picket", said one picketer. "Right to Work" committee meetings were addressed by APPM general manager Ken Henderson.
The attempt to stampede the workers back to work was abetted by the local media, which ran headlines such as "Breakthrough" and "300 mill starters". National media also gave exaggerated credence to this company operation, which was accompanied by advertisements placed by unnamed "business organisations".
APPM also stepped up other forms of intimidation, on and off the picket line. Cameras and video recorders have been used constantly to monitor the picket, apprentices have been subjected to threats that their indentures will be cancelled, and scabs have been used to break locks on the mill gates and even remove gates.
The company is constantly testing the picket lines with trucks, one of which was driven by chief industrial relations officer Len Evans. Security guards, many of them unlicensed, patrol the gates continuously, and on one occasion turned fire hoses on the pickets.
However, even the security guards are finding APPM is not a good employer. Some were recruited off the dole and are reluctant to do the company's dirty work, but they can't leave voluntarily for fear of losing social security entitlements. Three were sacked after cameras caught them chatting with picketers outside working hours.
Many unionists also suspect the company was involved in a bombing that caused minor damage to its Fern Glade pumping station. Unions have condemned the incident.
Perhaps the company's most spectacular manoeuvre is its writ of mandamus against state police commissioner John Johnson over the failure of the police to "maintain peace and good order" on the picket line. In fact, the only violent episode occurred when a small truck accelerated at the picketers.
At the Supreme Court in Hobart, the company rolled out 11 witnesses, one of whom admitted he had been coached by APPM to approach the picket line. The hearing is continuing, with both the state government and the Tasmanian Trades and Labor Council (TTLC) supporting the police commissioner.
Despite the fact that there is almost certainly disagreement in the company over the dispute, the New Right ideologues of NBH still have the whip hand. The company indicated that it would ignore rulings of the federal Industrial Relations Commission after commissioner Paul Munro announced he would amend APPM awards to enforce negotiated settlements of industrial disputes.
Meanwhile, public support for the strikers remains strong, with British singer Billy Bragg making a statement of support during his visit to Tasmania, and 300 people turning out for a TTLC rally in Hobart. Around 60 people attended a Politics the Pub organised by Green Left Weekly supporters in Hobart. The meeting was addressed by Paul Lennon MHA and TWU organiser Barry Hansch. Musicians and other performers organised a benefit concert in Burnie on May 31. n