A dispute at Preston Motors has been resolved after an almost five-week-long campaign by workers, the National Union of Workers (NUW), Union Solidarity and other community groups. The company's initial offer of a mere $4 a week pay rise left the workers with little choice but to fight for their rights. A community picket line was established and held tight while the dispute was underway, and the company finally agreed to negotiate with the workers' union, the NUW.
The workers won a $35 to $40 a week pay increase (resulting in an after-tax take-home pay increase of approximately $28). The union has also won a greater say over redundancies, so that long-term employees who wish to leave can now do so with a proper payout. Small concessions were made by the union, with paid sick leave being reduced from 30 to 20 days and a cap on redundancies at 45 weeks.
Gary Stutz, an NUW delegate at the Preston Motors Campbellfield site, told Green Left Weekly, "This wasn't a result — this was a victory. We got more than what we asked for. I think that with Work Choices these disputes are harder and take longer to win, but ... by going for the long haul and not rolling over we can still win."
Addressing the Socialist Alliance Victorian conference in Melbourne on April 14, Stutz explained: "One of the key reasons for our victory is that everybody remained committed to the strike. Not one person caved in and crossed the picket line. That is despite the fact that at the beginning of the strike, I was the only worker there who had ever been on a picket line before. The lesson is that if you stick together,
you can win."
The dispute began on March 13 when more than 30 workers in the spare parts sections at Preston Motors' Campellfield, Dandenong and Geelong sites launched an indefinite strike over the company's refusal to negotiate a fair pay deal. The Geelong workers later returned to work.
The local community provided support to the campaign with constant visits to the picket, honks from passing cars and cash and food donations. The NUW played an important role in helping the striking workers — many of whom have children and mortgages — including with organisational and financial assistance. NUW organiser Dave Hocking played a key role in negotiating the final agreement.
During the dispute, Preston Motors utilised the services of Freehills lawyers, who have been involved in other campaigns that the community group Union Solidarity has participated in.
Union Solidarity organiser Dave Kerin told GLW: "Every action that Union Solidarity has been involved in has had Freehills involvement as well and I think that they are actually still trying to work out what you do when the people stand up and say no. They wanted to extend this dispute and wanted to see where it would go. They are the militants of the ruling class, they want even more draconian laws to apply to the community and unions.
"I suspect this was a hunting party to see what they could forage. Employers and the government have not been banking on people standing up, but this country has a long and proud tradition of people fighting for their rights."