Unionist fights for her job

July 19, 2009

Cindy Shelley had worked for Thomastown-based tooling specialist Sutton Tools for more than 20 years when she was told that her job was gone.

That's bad news for most people. But when you're a single mum with three kids like Shelley, it's devastating.

Shelley was one of six workers Sutton Tools dismissed on May 12. Nobody saw it coming. All six were union members and two were workplace delegates.

The sacked workers belonged to the National Union of Workers (NUW) or the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. At one point, community members picketed the company and stopped goods from leaving the factory to support the sacked workers.

"The company wouldn't give us any real reasons for the retrenchment", Shelley, an NUW delegate, told Green Left Weekly. "They cited a downturn in business but refused to tell us how they decided who to dismiss."

Shelley is convinced that Sutton Tools wanted to get rid of her because she was a delegate and because she needed a more flexible workplace arrangement due to her son's learning disability. The company had previously been willing to accommodate her need for flexibility.

In the past, Shelley was able to start earlier to make up her six hours on days when her child had an afternoon appointment.

All of that changed about a year ago when the company changed its rules, preventing her from working flexible hours. "I would start to miss work more often. I am a single mum with three kids and don't have anybody to share these responsibilities with me", she said.

She told GLW that she didn't believe the downturn was the real reason for the sackings. "The economic downturn did hurt the company", she said. "Orders and exports had decreased. Having said that, the day we got retrenched the delegate asked the company to reconsider its position and instead institute a four-day week so we could all keep our jobs.

"Sutton Tools point-blank refused that. But since then they have gone onto a nine-day fortnight."

The cases of the other five workers have been resolved, but Shelley's case is still outstanding. It is due to be heard on July 21 by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

"Sutton Tools believe they have the right to retrench whoever they want without consultation or a fair and clear process", she said. Shelley said bosses should not be allowed to target workplace delegates and should take family considerations into account.

She became a workplace assessor a few years ago to help with a new industry competency standard that benefited Sutton Tools. "At the time there were only two of us from the shop floor who did the course," she said. "I even wrote all the standard operating procedures for the department I worked in.

"I want my job back, that's all I am asking for. It was close to home, which meant I could be there for my son when he needed me. The bosses were aware of my situation and I always gave them plenty of notice when I had to attend special meetings.

"I had been very loyal to the firm and feel deeply hurt, but I will fight for my job. One thing has become pretty clear to me — if you don't fight you lose."

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