What keeps the sacked workers at Vista Paper Products, in the outer Sydney suburb of Emu Plains, cheerful and determined on the picket line after nearly four months? The workers have been locked out since March 4 by an employer demanding that they work longer hours for less pay and give up their right to representation through the Printing and Kindred Industries Union. GAIL LORD recently spoke to three of the Vista workers — Ron, Jim and John — about a little-publicised dispute that will, if lost, provide a legal precedent for the destruction of award conditions.
You get a stark view of the kind of conditions Vista management would impose if they succeed in their award-busting operation from the pittance they have been paying their scabs.
According to Ron: "We have talked to some of the casuals that started there. We can't prove this, but it looks like they started on approximately $3 an hour less than us, and when they were put on permanent later dropped another $2. So you're looking at about $5 less that what we were earning in there, which, when you're looking at a wife and a couple of kids, is around about the same as on the dole. Doesn't give you much incentive, does it?"
With more than 8000 registered out of work in the locality, it's not surprising that Vista found quite a few prepared to take another worker's job. But the initial trickle of scabs came about in an interesting way, Ron says.
"About eight scabs went back, some of whom belong to religious groups that claim that they had to obey their master and they quoted passages from the Bible. This church group brought a lot of their friends from the same church group in. And the CES advertised: the blokes here have seen their jobs advertised in the CES.
"Management stated that they didn't need to advertise, that people were crawling over each other trying to get in there. That's not exactly the case. A lot of people did pull up, and when we told them what was happening they wouldn't cross the picket line; they didn't want to work there. Still, there's a lot of people in there working now."
The picket line remains the Vista workers' main source of strength. Without it, their case would have faded out of the industrial courts long ago. And it irritates Vista management no end.
"He's not real impressed with the picket line", Ron says of Vista boss John McNamee. "We're an embarrassment to him, sitting out the front here, advertising what's going on. We started
off for 14 weeks in tents (one of which was burnt down) and the last three to four weeks we've had a bus supplied by the Graphic Arts Club. That's pretty well pissed him off, since we're pretty well in luxury comfort now. We're out of the weather and we're doing all right here now."
The picket has been essential to getting out the facts of the dispute. With the mainstream media reporting as fact management claims to have negotiated exhaustively, the Vista workers' picket is the one place local people can find out what McNamee and his backers, the Australian Chamber of Manufacturers, are really up to.
John told us what the "negotiations" had been like. "We came up with suggestions of different shifts we could do when he told us he wanted more hours to keep running his new machinery ... we came up with all sorts of suggestions for different shifts. He didn't take any interest in looking at them.
"When we finally worked out what he wanted, we asked if we worked the extra hours would he give our conditions back when things began to pick up again. He said no. So we said, if we still agree to it, will you promise not to drop our pay rates. He said he couldn't promise that either."
By then it had become clear that the Vista workers were to be the guinea pigs in an ACM experiment to see if it could drive the union movement back one step further, to "enterprise bargaining" conducted without shelter from the award. It has made them, and their wives and girlfriends, more determined.
"My wife's 100%", says Ron. "She reckons we're going to win."
Meanwhile, management carries on with its tactic of dragging the case out in the Industrial Relations Commission. Having failed to prove that "no dispute existed", it launched an appeal against Commissioner Riordan's finding that it did. Then, one day before the appeal was due to be heard, the company withdrew it. The Vista case now returns to the IRC on July 8.
But the workers on the picket line are determined to outlast McNamee. "I know that it's his company", John says. "But you've got to stand up for your rights. You can't let someone take you right down. If we just let the employers do what they want to us, we'll end up not being able to survive."
Donations and messages of support should be sent to: Vista Pulp and Paper Lockout Fund, c/- PKIU Federal Office, 594-596 Crown St, Surry Hills NSW 2010. To arrange for Vista workers to visit your job, ring 02 211 4433 and ask for Frank Rew or Tom Burraston. The next Vista benefit will be held in the AMEU office, Parramatta Rd, Granville, on Thursday July 4 at 6.30 p.m.
All friends welcome.