Workers defy Boeing and win

May 3, 2008

A three-week dispute that stopped production at Port Melbourne-based Boeing subsidiary Hawker de Havilland (HdH), closing sections of the Triple Seven aeroplane assembly line in the US due to a lack of parts, ended on April 27. At a mass meeting outside the gates of the Boeing plant the 700 workers voted overwhelmingly to return to work.

The Boeing workers downed tools on April 9 after team leader and Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) member Allan Bloom was sacked for allegedly rorting the time-keeping system. Boeing management had refused to address AMWU delegates' concerns about the faulty Manfact system.

The workers believe that Boeing, the eighth largest transnational company in the world, provoked the dispute to shed jobs. HdH manufactures parts for Boeing's new 787 airliner and had announced large-scale redundancies to create sufficient floor space for the 787 wing-tip construction. It was also planning to send projects to its Bankstown site in NSW, or overseas.

Rather than retraining the HdH workforce for the 787 project, Boeing had been employing contractors and migrant workers on temporary work visas, many of whom are not union members.

Once the workers took "illegal" action, defying Australian Industrial Relations Commission and Federal Court orders to return to work, Boeing used Work Choices to threaten the workers with fines if they didn't return to work.

Under the laws, the AMWU became liable for lost revenue of $1.3 million per day if the company could prove that the union was involved in the dispute.

According to Union Solidarity, Boeing even created a special website to threaten, intimidate and confuse striking workers and discredit the union.

Workers were told at the mass meeting that the company used the Work Choices laws to prevent Bloom's sacking from being dealt with through the enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) process. Workers were also told that Boeing had engaged security personnel to follow them home and have phone calls traced.

Outstanding concerns

In the return-to-work agreement Boeing agreed to drop all legal action against the striking workers, the delegates and the AMWU. The agreement also included a clause that required Boeing to advise any external bodies, such as the Workplace Ombudsman, to halt any external investigations related to the dispute.

On April 24, Union Solidarity coordinator Dave Kerin was served with an order by the Workplace Ombudsman to produce information about the dispute by May 8, a demand that has not yet been dropped. Kerin, who faces a prison sentence of up to six months if he does not comply, told Green Left Weekly that Union Solidarity will not cooperate with the investigation.

Bloom, the sacked worker, was not reinstated and he will file for unfair dismissal. The agreement allows the union to provide the names of three proposed commissioners to rule on the dismissal, of which Boeing will choose one.

If the commissioner rules in favour of Bloom, Boeing must provide him with the option for reinstatement or a payout equivalent to the redundancy provisions in the EBA. This is a significant gain as companies normally don't have to re-employ workers who have won unfair dismissal cases (only 4% of unfair dismissals end in reinstatement) or pay the full entitlements.

Importantly, the return-to-work agreement also stipulates that any remaining issues, such as the use of "independent" contractors and future redundancies, have to be dealt with within the guidelines of the enterprise bargaining agreement. The mass meeting also voted unanimously to re-elect the workplace delegates.

Workplace resolve

Boeing's corporate thuggery and plans to deunionise the HdH site were defeated due to the militancy and resolve of the striking Boeing workers, according to Tim Gooden, secretary of Geelong Trades Hall.

"While Work Choices laws were used to intimidate the workers into an early return to work by threatening individual fines, the government and Boeing weren't game to risk the growing community and union support for the Boeing workers by pushing ahead with the fines. This demonstrates that it is possible for unions and workers to defy the anti-union laws", he told GLW.

"The Howard government's Work Choices laws were rejected, but unfortunately Rudd's industrial relations laws retain the worst anti-union features", Gooden said.

Many Boeing workers were surprised to discover that their strike was illegal. Any industrial action during the life of an enterprise bargaining agreement is illegal. The only "legal" industrial action is during the period of bargaining for a new enterprise agreement, and only after a secret ballot.

This means that many companies wait until the enterprise bargaining agreement is signed before provoking a dispute by sacking a delegate or workers on light duties or restructuring the workplace.

Boeing provoked the dispute by breaching the dispute resolution procedures for the EBA. This leaves workers with two choices: accept their bosses reneging on agreements and eroding conditions, or take illegal industrial action to protect their rights.

"It's only possible for unions to defy the laws if the workers are united and if public support is built for the workers who are in dispute", said Gooden.

"The challenge unions now face is how to build broad support for disputes as it isn't always possible, especially in small work places, for workers to run a 24-hour picket line once a strike has been declared 'illegal' and union officials have been threatened with injunctions if they join the picket line.

"Support from other unions is critical. When we act together, it's harder for the government to attack. The fact that the government and employers haven't pushed on fines against individual workers in most industrial disputes over the last couple of years, including the Boeing dispute, demonstrates that it is possible for unions and workers to defy the anti-union laws.

"The Boeing dispute showed this, and the victory is that the workers returned to work with a strengthened union", concluded Gooden.

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