Government joins attack on Wodonga meatworkers

May 1, 1991

By Peter Boyle

A large number of police have been brought into Wodonga to contain a militant picket line by 270 striking workers from Wodonga Meats. The strike, according to the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, was forced by the company, which wanted to break a previous agreement on wages, superannuation and conditions made in 1982.

The strike began when the company sacked 10 union delegates in April. Wodonga Meats general manager Jon Hayes admits he was looking for a showdown. When the meatworkers walked out after the delegates were sacked, the company renounced the 1982 Victorian Export Meat Agreement and demanded that all workers sign individual contracts, which included a no-strike clause, by 5 p.m. April 23 or face the sack.

The agreement had been won after a strike just before the end of the Fraser Liberal government but because of Fraser's wage freeze, it did not become part of the award. Nevertheless, it began to operate in Wodonga Meats.

When the Hawke government came in, the Industrial Relations Commission declared the agreement to be outside the terms of the Accord. But the company felt constrained to continue to abide by the agreement — until recently.

When the company's deadline expired, it began recruiting strikebreakers, who were escorted into the plant by police as the strikers shouted, "Scabs!"

The scabs found no work to do because meat inspectors refused to cross the picket line. The Department of Primary Industries served notices on the inspectors, threatening them with prosecution under the Crimes Act, the Public Service Act and the Trade Practices Act.

The Department of Social Security joined in on the company's side by insisting that strikers who had lost their jobs because they refused to sign individual contracts were not eligible for the dole because they had refused work!

However, the strikers scored a symbolic victory when one of the strikebreakers walked out of the plant, threw off the company uniform and joined the picket.

Graham Bird, assistant state secretary of the AMIEU, said that the strikers were taking a firm stand because the company wanted to impose terms which meant that some workers would lose up to $300 a week in take-home pay.

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