Workers strike for union agreement

Issue 

Justine Kamprad, Geelong

On August 28, the 13 workers employed by Williamstown Sheet Metal Pty Ltd, in the south-west Melbourne suburb of Laverton North, took their first ever industrial action.

The workers voted unanimously to refuse the company's offer of a non-union agreement, to strike for 24 hours and to picket the factory during the day shift.

Williamstown Sheet Metal has always had union agreements and the workers — all but two of whom are members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union — thought it would remain the same after their agreement expired on April 1. However, the owner and director of the company, Steve Watts, decided several weeks ago not to attend any negotiations for a new pattern agreement with the union.

At the beginning of August, the company presented the workers with an agreement that included pay rises at the company's discretion, no portable redundancy payments and a move from a 36-hour work week to 38 hours. The agreement also lacked award protected provisions, such as work clothing.

When the workers refused this agreement, Watts offered them a non-union agreement that included protected award pay and conditions.

Steve Rhodes, a shop steward at the factory who has worked there for 10 years, told Green Left Weekly: "On Thursday night, Watts told us he wants the original agreement squashed and to get us all on individual contracts, and that he would weed us out one by one. He's been advertising [for new employees] in the Werribee Banner and other local papers and he reckons that he has four tradesmen willing to start on AWAs. He wants to force all the union members out.

"Watts claimed he negotiated, but he just said this is what I want — take it or leave it. The [new industrial relations] laws are in the bosses' favour and they use them to their full advantage."

David Stiles, who has worked for the company for six years, told GLW: "These new laws are so unfair. They're so limited as to what we can do. It allows bosses like this to walk all over you. It's the old story — the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and that's what these laws are designed to do."