Unions settle West Gate Bridge dispute

May 23, 2009

A three month long industrial dispute at the West Gate Bridge strengthening project in Melbourne has ended. Unions and construction giant John Holland reached a settlement on May 15.

John Holland sparked the dispute by not honouring an existing workplace agreement. John Holland instead offered a substandard agreement with lower wages and worse conditions.

Thirty nine workers, all members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), rejected the new agreement. They were then sacked in early March.

Protests and pickets by the sacked workers and supporters caused big delays in the project. Eventually it brought John Holland to the negotiating table.

Steve Dargavel, Victorian AMWU state secretary told Green Left Weekly the May 15 settlement resolved the wages and conditions of the West Gate bridge project. It also settled outstanding legal matters relating to the dispute.

The settlement includes an industrial agreement similar to what the company first rejected.

Dargavel said the agreement was a substantial win for the workers "because Holland has failed in its bid to have a mixed metals project done on a cheaper rate".

As part of the resolution process the AMWU and CFMEU signed a deed that could make the unions liable to pay thousands of dollars to a charity organisation. The deed is effective until January 1, 2012.

Dargavel said payments to the charity Oxfam would be triggered if the unions breached an undertaking not to run an industrial, or "revenge" campaign against John Holland in Victoria.

"The provisions of the deed don't include taking workers to a rally, taking industrial action that is industry-wide or if we have strike action on a particular Holland site, which is not deemed to be a 'campaign'", he said.

The deed does not stop John Holland taking legal action against unprotected industrial action on its sites.

John Holland, like any company, can still take legal action for an alleged breach of industrial law. Under the ALP's Fair Work Act, industrial action is illegal during the life of an existing enterprise agreement. This was also the case under former PM John Howard's Work Choices.

Contrary to mainstream media reports the deed does not include a "no-strike" clause. "We would never agree to that", said Dargavel.

The deed is unusual. It could cost the AMWU a hefty $400,000 payment to Oxfam for a single breach. The CFMEU could pay up to $250,000. The payment of the AMWU is higher because the deed also resolves a dispute between the union and John Holland at the Maryvale pulp mill.

John Holland has a history of chasing workers and unions for legal damages long after a dispute is over. Yet in this case the company agreed to abandon all legal matters relating to the dispute.

John Holland also agreed to re-employ most of the sacked workers. Others will receive a payout from the company.

Already, the agreement has run into problems. Of the 23 workers John Holland agreed to re-employ, only 13 were back on the project by May 21.

Some workers have received letters from the company saying they were unsuitable for re-employment. The two unions had another meeting with John Holland on May 22 to try to resolve the issue.

Dargavel told GLW: "John Holland is a highly focused adversary of workers and I will be surprised if this was the last time it finds itself in a big dispute with the Australian trade unions."

Some of the sacked workers told GLW they were prepared to down tools again if Holland did not honour the new agreement.

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