Visy workers keep fighting

Wednesday, July 21, 1999 - 10:00

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Visy workers keep fighting

By Federico Fuentes and Tom Flanagan

SYDNEY — Seventy students, along with union and community activists, joined striking workers on the picket lines at Visy Board factories at Smithfield and Warwick Farm on July 15. The strengthened picket prevented police from again attempting to get trucks carrying starch for cardboard processing through at the Smithfield site.

Around 400 Visy Board workers, members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), have been on strike since July 7 over health and safety conditions. They have faced assaults on their picket lines by up to 100 police who were making way for bus-loads of scabs.

Faced with determined opposition, the company, owned by Richard Pratt, one of Australia's richest men, resorted to flying the scabs in by helicopter and taking out court injunctions to prevent the strikers from conducting an effective picket line. Despite these difficulties, the workers have shown no signs of weakening and have vowed to strike until their demands are met.

When the students and community supporters arrived, AMWU organiser Amanda Perkins explained that in enterprise bargaining negotiations the workers had demanded a 12% pay increase. Management had offered only 8%, paid for by significant losses in work conditions.

A union member went on to explain that the dispute "isn't about money, it's about the conditions we work under". Health and safety is being downgraded to an extent that the well-being of all members is threatened, he said.

Union delegate Bob Vucicevic told Green Left Weekly that poor working conditions, problems with safe staffing levels, failure to police proper safety procedures and abuse of casual labour with no proper induction period have led to a large increase in workplace injuries. One casual worker had lost a finger due to lack of training, while another is in hospital facing a possible leg amputation.

Vucicevic also explained that during the 13 years he has worked at the Smithfield plant, managers have consistently pressured workers into doing overtime. The extra hours and pay have become the norm, but with the proposed introduction of a third shift, overtime will cease and workers' annual incomes will drop by as much as $30,000.

The dispute flared when two forklift drivers refused to handle work subject to union bans. They were sacked, as was a supervisor who refused to do the same work. The 400 Visy employees then walked out in solidarity and set up the picket lines.

A truck driver on contract who refused to cross the picket line was also sacked. The strikers have added his reinstatement to their demands.

The police brought in each day to break the picket line, along with the scabs, are aiding Visy's undermining of the health and safety of the workers. The workers' spirited resistance has resulted in police uniforms become closely acquainted with the mud surrounding the gateway to the Smithfield plant and tyres on scab trucks mysteriously go flat after crossing the picket line.

Picket-line violence has been sensationalised in the courts, yet the strikers are fighting against real threats to life and limb posed by their workplace. This type of violence doesn't seem to concern either Visy or the courts.

On July 16, Industrial Relations Commissioner Ron Jones declared the strike action illegal and ordered a return to work at noon on July 17. Basil King, state secretary of the printing division of the AMWU, was reported in ABC News online as saying that the decision would be discussed with the workers, but there would be no return to work on July 17.

From GLW issue 368