Red Ant Union Watch #3

By Andrew Martin

After last week’s successful protest, AMWU members are on the grass again, picketing their employer Visy over management’s unfair and unjust wage offer. Photo: AMWU Facebook page.

Blue collar unions maintain ground as the United Fire Fighters Union goes to war with Victorian Labor

Life is getting harder for workers in Australia. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) continues to lift interest rates, enhancing the banking sector’s profits at the expense of the working class. The cash rate has gone from 0.1% to 3.1% in eight months. Most economists do not expect the RBA to cut rates this year and they may increase.

Meanwhile, for most sectors, workers’ wages remain stagnant against persistently high inflation. There has not been any outline of a strategy from the union movement to combat the reduction in the disposable income of workers.

The new industrial relations (IR) legislation by the federal government will introduce multi-employer bargaining, the details of which remain unclear. There are some minor gains for workers in the new legislation. It will become easier for workers to recover unpaid wages and end terminations of enterprise agreements (EAs). It will also limit the use of fixed-term contracts.

As the Australian Labor Party (ALP) seeks this year to introduce a carbon credit system – with the backing of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and other business lobby groups – a lot of horse-trading will occur between the major parties. In the context of global and economic uncertainty, the ALP could easily introduce austerity measures – with little resistance from the union movement.

Although union membership has dropped from 14.3 to 12.5% over the past two years, some unions still hold their ground. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU, this writer is a member) has managed to hold onto more than 70 thousand members over the last five years. 2022 marked the AMWU’s 170th year – its forerunner being the Australian Engineers Union, which was directly affiliated with the English union of the same name.

The AMWU is an industrial union which covers a broad range of skills and occupations. It has revived some of its democratic functions, such as its state and national conferences. This comes at a time when there is growing feeling of confidence among the membership which also faces a cost-of-living crisis.

The union movement is taking much credit for changing the federal government. Steve Murphy, the national secretary of the AMWU, claims that the election was re-framed as a “manufacturing election”. He is quoted in the AMWU News, “While Labor now holds the power of decision-making in Canberra, our union’s role is to make sure the Albanese government lives up to the ambitions we hold, and they are committed to”.

The AMWU wants the ALP government to rebuild Australian manufacturing, invest in skills and training, and bring in workplace laws that give workers more power. Albanese made big promises during the election, such as a $1 billion fund for innovation and a $15 billion national reconstruction fund.

The AMWU is also in dispute with some of the most powerful multinational corporations in the world. It is currently in EA negotiations with Coca-Cola where it seeks no trade-offs and an agreement to cover service technicians. Coca-Cola has a long history of human rights abuses and is difficult to negotiate with. Unions globally tried to implement a boycott in 2003 after paramilitaries killed nine union members in bottling plants in Colombia.

There is also an ongoing dispute between the AMWU and Opal, a major packaging company. Nationally and in Aotearoa (New Zealand), 930 workers have taken industrial action, including a 48-hour strike over eight worksites. The company is seeking to introduce a grandfathering clause in which new workers receive $15 per hour less than existing workers. Opal submitted 32 claims that would have rewritten the entire existing EA, destroying 20 years of hard-fought gains such as a 35hr week.

Jason Chrimes, a delegate for the AMWU at an OPAL factory in Perth, was quoted in AMWU News: “We have the upper hand, members have been disciplined and the union has been good at informing its members. We’re a 95% union site and we prepared well in a short amount of time.”

AMWU NSW Assistant State Secretary and former press operator Belinda Griggs stated: “Our members have stood strong. They’re united with our delegates and they’re not about to lose any of the conditions they’ve fought over 20 years to win”.

Opal is a subsidiary of the Nippon Paper Group, a Japanese company. Its Maryvale paper mill – which employs 200 people – has suspended paper production. The company says it cannot source hardwood timber from VicForests in the quantity it needs to make production viable.

AMWU fights to protect mechanics

The AMWU has also successfully represented Fire Rescue Victoria maintenance workers in a fractious dispute. Regrettably, they were unable to get the support of the United Fire Fighters Union (UFU) to pursue their claims. The Andrew’s Labor government has extended the firefighters’ presumptive cancer compensation to include 90 mechanics employed by FRV. The scheme covers firefighters in the event they are afflicted with cancer.

However, Peter Marshall, the UFU state secretary, has accused the Labor government of trashing the rights of firefighters. He reasons that including the mechanics in the scheme jeopardises its solvency. But he has also stated that mechanics are not exposed to the same risks as firefighters, so they do not need the insurance – an obvious contradiction. If mechanics are at less risk of getting cancer, it’s hard to see how they can undermine the scheme’s solvency.

Tony Mavromatis, the Victorian State Secretary of the AMWU, hit back, publicly accusing Marshall of being “anti-union” and “anti-worker”. The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) has also supported the State Government’s scheme to include maintenance workers. There is a deep rift that has developed between the UFU and Labor. Firefighters had handed out for the ALP in the 2014 election, but the relationship has soured.

Marshall appeared on Sky After Dark to campaign against the Andrews government in the state election, and UFU officials handed out election scorecards in the seats of Northcote and Richmond. Labor and Liberal scored five crosses, while the Greens scored five ticks. Marshall would like an 8.5% pay rise for his membership, 30 new firetrucks and the presumptive cancer compensation scheme to better protect firefighters.

The rift between the AMWU, ETU and UFU deepened over invitations to a charity event held by Protect, a union-backed income protection insurer that covers firefighters. Marshall claims he was not invited to the event and stated in an email that there had been “partisan, political interference by the ETU State Secretary Troy Grey [sic]”.

In a vindictive move, Marshall severed ties with Protect without consulting his membership. All the blue-collar unions strongly support the income protection insurance, and the ETU has members on its board of directors. Firefighters have not been told what insurer will cover them; the matter is now before the court.

For the mechanics, as well as being covered by Protect, having access to the presumptive cancer compensation is a significant win. Despite the rhetoric of Marshall, the AMWU has reported in its journal that many firefighters are sympathetic to the position of the mechanics. This is because they work closely together and depend on each other.

In reality, mechanics often attend to the scene of fires to repair firefighting equipment and trucks. The firetrucks are often covered with fire retardants, asbestos and many other chemicals after they have attended a fire. Mechanics are often directly exposed to these lethal toxins. A position of solidarity and unity would be to ensure the scheme better protects all workers.

Many of the mechanics have suffered from prolonged exposure to some of the biggest fires in living memory, such as the Coode Island fire in 1991 and the 2014 Hazelwood coal seam fire which burned for 45 days. They deserve to be financially protected for the hazards they have been exposed to.

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