By Peter Boyle
Employers across the country must have enjoyed the page 3 article in the May 31 Australian. '"Victory for all' at SPC says chairman", boasted the headline. A smiling shop steward and a smiling boss were pictured beneath a kicker: "We're going to get back everything we lost, plus a little more".
Last December, the 300 workers at Shepparton Preserving Company's fruit cannery in the rural Victorian town it is named after agreed, under threat of losing their jobs, to take a cut in their weekend penalty rates and sacrifice their rostered days off for a year. The company had pleaded poor and threatened to close down; the workers had little choice because SPC was one of the main employers in town.
On May 30, SPC announced that it was resuming full pay and conditions for its workers early because business had improved. Further, it would pay the workers at least half of what they lost in pay, at the end of this year.
Company chairperson John Corboy said that, since the company was making good profits, it would be "totally unethical" to continue to deprive the workers of their entitlements.
"It was always our intention to repay the workers", he said, boasting that SPC management was "approachable and totally honest".
There were lessons for all Australians, Corboy added. "If we as a nation come to the full realisation that we haven't got the luxury of fighting each other as employer and worker and we all work for a common goal, we are going to cover a lot more territory."
But Food Preservers Union secretary Tom Ryan told Green Left Weekly a different story.
The FPU covers most of the workers at the cannery. Four weeks ago the union approached the company about resuming full entitlements after reading about how well the company was doing in the press.
"The company was hesitant at first", said Ryan. It even got a statement from some shop stewards in the cannery urging that the suspension of entitlements remain. But the union then went to the ranks and got a different decision.
While this wasn't the basis for the union's claim, said Ryan, the union also let the company know that it was aware that SPC management had been paid a 5% salary increase in March.
Soon the company began to back down and quickly arranged for a dressed up version of what had transpired to hit the press. The company denied any connection between the management pay rises and the restoration of workers' entitlements. SPC managing director Jeff Tracy insisted that management deserved the pay rise anyway.
Fancy press work has been a feature of the SPC recently. Despite the hard times it pleaded, ever since December the company has been paying two consultants from a firm called International Public each! The consultants did their work (perhaps too well), arranging widespread media coverage for the story of worker-employer cooperation. They boasted about a 32% productivity increase — a claim Tom Ryan and the company's competitors doubt. What is undisputed is that the company gained massive business from the publicity about the deal.
"While the company assured us that they were simply doing what they had to do, the scale and timing of their publicity campaign leads me to believe that the whole campaign might have been orchestrated. Maybe SPC was knowingly or unknowingly being used by others", said Ryan.
Certainly right-wing and anti-union groups like the Business Council of Australia and the H.R. Nichols Society made much of the SPC case. They scarcely concealed their hope that it would help their campaign to smash the award system and weaken unionism.
The chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures even fantasised about workers paying to keep their jobs in the future. "There's nothing to stop workers paying their employer money — an annual deposit to retain their jobs", he told the Australian of February 2-3.
In an article in the latest issue of Arena, progressive academics Geoffrey Lawrence and Hugh Campbell (who specialise in rural sociology) cite the SPC deal as one example of big business seeking to exploit the rural crisis to attack workers' wages and conditions on a broad front.
"Farmers, desperate to find ways of remaining on the farm, and the unemployed and underemployed in country towns, are being encouraged to sign piece-rate contracts and engage in low-paid casual work. This challenges and ultimately undermines the current urban industrial labour regime based on employment on award rates, including substantial employee benefits such as holiday loadings, sick leave, long-service leave and a variety of other payments."
They fear that workers will be increasingly willing to follow the SPC example as rural industries continue to collapse. In the recent Albury meatworkers' strike, the CES organised scab labour from among the swelling unemployed in that rural town. Deals for shorter working weeks with loss of pay have even been struck in urban-based industries like vehicle building.
The direction of this campaign is clearer in New Zealand, argue Lawrence and Campbell. After many similar victories by employers in rural towns facing rising unemployment or underemployment, the new National government has reduced unemployment benefits and scrapped the old award system.
Tom Ryan insists that the SPC case does not set a precedent for breaking awards. While concessions were forced from the workers, the union and the Victorian Trades Hall ensured that the award was preserved. The mainstream media repeated exaggerated versions of the concessions made, he said. There's a suggestion that even this might have been part of the company's PR campaign.
Perhaps he's right, but if the SPC and its shadowy supporters get away with their fairytale account of the SPC deal and its will have won a significant propaganda victory.