Sacked West Gate Bridge workers stand firm

March 27, 2009

A protracted industrial dispute between construction giant John Holland and 39 sacked workers at the West Gate Bridge reconstruction project in Melbourne continued on March 27, with a vibrant demonstration by union members and their supporters at the bridge.

The workers temporarily called off their three-week community protest at the John Holland worksite after the company finally agreed to enter into negotiations early last week.

The workers, however, pledged to continue their demonstrations every morning at the bridge until a satisfactory settlement is reached with the company.

John Holland's willingness to enter into negotiations might have been motivated by the fact that the company has been unable to replace the sacked workers with a big enough scab labour force willing to cross the picket line and start work on the project.

The 39 sacked Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) members were employed last December by Civil Pacific Services, the company sub-contracted by John Holland, under the "West Gate Bridge Project Agreement", which was signed by the respective unions and Civil Pacific Services.

John Holland responded by presenting the employees with an inferior agreement and told them they would be members of the industrially weaker Australian Workers' Union (AWU) on this particular worksite, thereby attacking their right to freedom of association.

The workers refused to accept the agreement, which led to Civil Pacific Services terminating their employment on March 2. John Holland has initiated legal proceedings against three union officials, threatened some of the sacked workers with legal actions and issued court orders against four workers, preventing them from participating in the community protest at the worksite.

Green Left Weekly has been informed that, in its most recent discussions with the AMWU and CFMEU, John Holland offered to re-interview all the sacked workers but made it clear that the four barred workers, Barry Slavin, Toby Patterson, Trent Padula and Canice Lynch would not be re-employed.

The construction giant also withdrew its initial substandard offer and were prepared to agree to the workers' original "Mixed Metals" Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, but with a lower pay rate.

Slavin, a workplace union delegate, told GLW that John Holland's behaviour has been the real stumbling block to getting on with the job and its targeting of the four workers smacks of intimidation tactics.

"Holland sees us as union activists and just wants to prevent people from standing up for their rights", he said.

Lynch, an active unionist, agreed saying that in a recent meeting with union secretaries, state government representatives said John Holland had to "sort out the dispute and get the sacked workers back on the job".

"It's important for workers to send Holland a message that we won't be bullied. We have a right to our proper entitlements and we also want to get on with making the bridge safe", Patterson, another barred worker and the occupational health and safety representative, told GLW.

"Hopefully common sense will prevail. Holland has been delaying the job, not us. They want to be seen to break the union by taking us on at the iconic West Gate Bridge. Well, we won't have a bar of it."

The sacked workers have received broad community support. A number of AWU members and delegates have also attended the community protest to show their solidarity with the sacked workers and demonstrate their concern that John Holland is breaching the workers' right to choose which union they want to join.

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