By Peter Boyle
MELBOURNE, July 4 — Hasan Donmez was lying on a camp bed in an old tent that couldn't completely keep out the winter wind. By his side was a bottle of water and some salt — all he had taken for eight days in his strike against victimisation by management at Ford Broadmeadows.
Outside, 19 other Ford workers sacked for supporting him tried to keep warm around a makeshift brazier. A few workers walked through the gates with their heads down, conscious of the security camera scanning the area.
"Workers who talk to us have been called up by management and intimidated", said Donmez. But at the end of afternoon shift, in the dark, many stop to offer their support, he added. There were up to 100 people around the tent most nights. "Many people are afraid of losing their jobs. But we have decided to make a stand because we cannot allow them to treat us as though we have no rights."
Donmez — a Vehicle Builders' Union shop steward and a Ford worker for the last five years — and the other sacked workers have been deserted by their union.
His sacking came without warning on June 25. But Ford management had been out to get him for sometime. They swore at him and humiliated him in front of others to provoke him into lashing out, Donmez said. But he controlled himself.
Since the recession hit, the company has tried to force more work out of the employees through a process it calls "work rebalancing". More tasks were being forced onto fewer workers. One result was a rise in health problems and absenteeism.
When Donmez tried to reason with management, he was told not to worry and that as a shop steward he could take it easy. "It's not your problem", they said. But this only drove Donmez to step up his organising against work rebalancing.
Tension was rising among the workers, especially among the many of Vietnamese and Turkish origin in the paint, metal finish and body building sections, who believed they were being picked on. Then Donmez was called in by the bosses and sacked without notice, allegedly for "neglect of duty" for "refusing to trial a rebalance of work in his section" — a charge he denies.
Usually, a shop steward cannot be sacked except in the presence of a union organiser, but management only dragged in another shop steward as witness. Donmez was told to leave the factory
immediately. Instead, he walked back to his section and told the other workers what had happened. Work immediately stopped on all lines in the plant. The union office was informed, and some 200 workers remained in the plant awaiting a union decision. Some stayed overnight.
Next morning, security guards and about 30 police attacked the workers with batons, dragging most out of the plant. Finally, Donmez encouraged the rest of the workers to leave to avoid further violence. But as they walked out, 20 workers were handed notices that they were being stood down for two days. The two days were used by the bosses to spread disinformation about the militants.
At a shop committee meeting next day, VBU state secretary Ian Jones listened to the workers' story and said the union would win Donmez's reinstatement even if it had to go to the Industrial Relations Commission. Stop all action and leave it to the union, he said.
But according to Donmez and other militants, the union secretly colluded with Ford bosses to get rid of them. The 20 militants were subsequently sacked, and the VBU officials distributed a leaflet repeating the company's wild accusations against Donmez. Jones has condemned the militants in the media.
VBU officials claim that "work rebalancing" was a "victory" because they got a $15 wage rise in return. They say the deal had been accepted by all shop stewards and a mass meeting. But Donmez says there was no mass meeting, and he and at least two other shop stewards were strongly and vocally opposed to work rebalancing. The officials also claim that the militants' "anti-union activities" were threatening the jobs of other union members.
Donmez began his hunger strike on June 27. He is demanding reinstatement and an end to management pressure and harassment of workers at Ford.
As I spoke to Hasan Donmez, he was visited by a woman whose husband worked at Ford for 18 years before he was pressured into accepting voluntary redundancy because of work-related health problems. The company treats its workers "like pigs", she said, offering her support.
Support is coming from other factories. According to Gerard Morell, senior shop steward at Toyota Port Melbourne, other car industry workers are furious at Donmez's treatment by Ford and the VBU officials. The union has traded off far too many working conditions in recent times, and Jones and other officials will pay for this at the next union elections, he warned. Donmez campaigned for Ian Jones' team in the last elections because, he explained, they had promised to defend workers rights.
The company has served writs on the 20 for trespassing. But they are determined to stay. "We are workers with a grievance against the company and we have the right to stay here until it is settled."
Just before I left, a management official swaggered up, flanked by three security guards, and affixed a Turkish translation of a court order demanding that the picketers leave the factory gate. "This is not a Turkish problem, this is a problem of all the workers in this factory", said a picketer, furious at what he saw as a racist insult. The 20 sacked workers cited in the order include Vietnamese and Latin Americans.
Sometime soon, the picketers expect another violent attack by police and security guards. Hasan Donmez winced as he turned on his side. "Let them drag us out. We are not going to let them intimidate us. If they frighten us, they are going to think they can get away with anything."
The picketers urgently need financial assistance. Donations can be made to State Bank of Victoria account number 378 4453 0495.