Silcar workers fight on

August 28, 2010

The fight is on at Bluescope Steel, in Western Port Hastings, where 86 maintenance workers from the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) are holding their picket lines in the face of scab labour.

The workers are under attack from their employer Silcar and Bluescope Steel, which contracts its plant maintenance to Silcar.

The steel manufacturing plant employs around 1400 people full-time and produces more than a million tonnes of steel products a year.

In 2002, Silcar workers won a bitter dispute, dubbed the “Battle of Hastings”. Now, the same workers have to fight again, picketing day and night in the harshest winter weather seen on the Mornington Peninsula for 20 years.

Silcar management is using the same underhanded tactics that Bluescope management used in 2002.

Silcar has demonised the picketers with in-house propaganda and instructed Bluescope employees not to speak to the press. It has telephoned and hand-delivered propaganda to picketers’ homes, further upsetting already distraught households.

Since negotiations began in February, there have been 30 meetings in which 24 claims have been dropped and others modified.

In late July, despite the Labor government’s heavily restrictive workplace laws, the unionists at Bluescope’s plant began rolling stoppages.

On August 5, industrial action escalated. Notice was given to Silcar and Bluescope management that the workers were downing tools for six days. Picket lines were immediately set up at the four main entrances to the site. Three weeks later, the picket still stands with Silcar management refusing to budge.

On August 25, the Flinders Standard Leader reported that strikers had been told that scab labour, brought in to break the picket lines, would be offered permanent positions with Bluescope Steel.

AMWU state organiser Greg Warren said: “Our biggest concern is that they have brought in scabs in the first place.

“Now we are concerned that some of these scabs could be staying permanently, which means there could be redundancies within the Silcar full-time workforce who provide ongoing maintenance for BlueScope. The strike action may result in them losing their jobs.”

There are two main issues driving the dispute. First, Silcar has refused to remove ambiguous “Work Choices”-style clauses left over from the previous agreement. Second, Silcar management wants the ability to move day workers onto permanent shiftwork with just 48 hours notice and no consultation.

The striking workers also want a 0.5% increase in superannuation to bring the outsourced maintenance employees in line with Bluescope employees. They also want protection from the proposed national occupational health and safety laws by securing some critical clauses of the existing Victorian OH&S in their new enterprise agreement.

Unprecedented support from Bluescope and Silcar employees who are members of the Australian Workers Union has bolstered the picketers resolve. The local community and businesses have donated goods and money to the strikers. Electrical Trades Union members at Silcar have shown solidarity with their workmates at every given opportunity.

Local federal MP Greg Hunt has refused to take a side in the dispute, despite the suffering of his constituents’ families and businesses.

In the end, it’s Bluescope Steel that pays for wage increases and flexibility of employment for their contractors. Bluescope Steel has announced a $198 million end of year profit.

These are supposed to be tough economic times. Tough, if you are on a picket line in winter maybe.

Letters of support to the workers on the picket can be addressed to senior AWMU delegate Brian Sage at The picket is at Bayview Road, Hastings. The workers would appreciate visitors.

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