Direct action overturns sackings

May 10, 2006

Ben Courtice, Melbourne

"Direct action gets workers' jobs back", announced the media release from community activist group Union Solidarity after the reinstatement of three workers who were sacked under the Howard government's Work Choices laws on April 4. The reinstatement came after Union Solidarity organised a day-long "community assembly" at the West Heidelberg factory of Finlay Engineering.

The community assembly began before dawn, at 6am, on May 2. Supporters held signs showing their support for the sacked workers and received a noisily positive response from passing motorists. Around 300 unionists and community supporters attended during the following 26 hours, blocking delivery trucks' access through the factory gates.

Over the day, picketers included members of dozens of unions and community organisations and other concerned individuals. ACTU president Sharan Burrow turned up in the afternoon to address the media and speak to the sacked workers.

By the evening, factory owner Jim Sutton agreed to a meeting with Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) Victorian president Chris Spindler at a nearby hotel and signed an agreement to reinstate the three workers. Spindler told Green Left Weekly afterwards that he was very pleased that the workers had their jobs back and he will "be involved in the workshop on an ongoing basis to help communication and consultation".

The sacked workers, including AMWU delegate Vince Pascuzzi and occupational health and safety representative Harry Rai, were sacked during a workplace meeting on April 4. In Pascuzzi's account, Sutton told the workers that "anyone not respecting the management" would be sacked. When he then told Rai to "wipe that smirk off your face", Pascuzzi asked Sutton to "show some respect". Sutton then told Pascuzzi he was sacked. When Rai objected, saying "you can't sack a person for saying 'show respect'", he was also sacked.

The following day, management presented the remaining workers with individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements — AWAs) to sign. Under the new federal laws, the contracts would have overridden union agreements and contained just 126 words on a single sheet of paper, 40 of them handwritten. AMWU state secretary Dave Oliver told media that the contracts would have left process workers at least $1.50 per hour below the going rates and that the sacking of the two union activists was undoubtedly linked to management's production on the following day of the hastily drawn-up AWAs.

After their victory, Pascuzzi told GLW: "We'd like to thank all the people who supported us. If it wasn't for the community support we wouldn't have got our jobs back. We would have had to go to the federal court and it would have taken a long time. These new Work Choices laws leave no choice for workers."

Speaking of his first day back at work, Pascuzzi said his workmates had "doubted that we would win our jobs back", but even the owner of four factories nearby had approached Pascuzzi and Rai during their lunch break to congratulate them, saying, "It isn't right that workers go back to being treated like they were 100 years ago".

Unions had staged a rally outside the factory on April 28 in support of the sacked workers and gained wide media coverage. Sutton did not respond to the negative media coverage, however, telling ABC radio, "Up until these new industrial laws, it was very hard to take any action against anyone." He denied he had sacked anyone for smirking, stating, "What I said was the government have now given us a much better chance of controlling our work force, and if you people are not prepared to make the production rates that we require then your services won't be required".

Sutton's comments reveal that the outcome of this dispute is a real blow to the Work Choices laws. The Finlay Engineering victory shows that employers can be stopped from using the laws against workers and is a great example for unions searching for ways to defeat the new laws.

While the workers are keen to now get on with their jobs and Sutton says that he hopes "everything's back to normal", it is clear that the workers owe their victory to the direct action of the community supporters who picketed the factory.

From Green Left Weekly, May 10, 2006.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.