ACI dispute: Anatomy of a 19 week struggle


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MELBOURNE: The nineteen week struggle by locked out maintenance workers from the ACI glass factory in Spotswood has finally ended. The settlement was a partial but significant victory to the workers involved and a solid demonstration of the power of the organised working class.

The dispute commenced in early July when the ACI management gave 59 workers notice that they were to be forcibly retrenched. The remaining 77 workers were locked out when they refused to carry out the work of their sacked work mates. This dispute really began many months before as ACI, owned by the huge British based multi-national BTR (British Tyre and Rubber), made it clear they were planning to implement a radical restructuring as part of the company’s new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

The chief union the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) managed to delay the commencement of open conflict by dodging and weaving in the Industrial Relations Court. The Unions involved were the AMWU, the Electrical Trade Union (ETU) and the Construction, Mining, Forestry and Energy Trade Union (CMFEU). The production workers are covered by the Australian Workers Union (AWU). Fortunately for the workers involved the key organisers were Vince Theuma (AMWU), Howard Worthing (ETU) and Dave Noonan (CMFEU), all genuine militants with a serious commitment to the rank and file. Unfortunately, despite the fact that ACI has been a very strong and pro-union shop over many years, they were not able to stop the bosses of ACI (BTR-Nylex) winning a significant reduction in the workforce.

A mini-Weipa in Melbourne

This dispute, set in the political climate of the Liberals’ plans to introduce the most draconian changes to industrial relations this century, turned ACI into a mini-Weipa and a test case for the union movement in Australia. The workers were faced with a powerful and hugely wealthy opponent.

The significance of the dispute was not lost on fellow workers and the practical solidarity shown by thousands will cause serious concern to the capitalist ruling class. The ACI workers received $100 a week strike pay from a strike fund maintained by workers who levied themselves in a number of industries, including the Crown Casino site and Transfield. Despite this, the workers suffered great economic hardship. One or two have even lost their houses.

A truly historic moment occurred in October when police on horseback batoned peaceful unarmed workers who were trying to block trucks carrying raw materials into the factory. This cowardly act was met by a fantastic response as hundreds of workers equipped with hard hats walked off surrounding sites to join workers on the picket line. The solidarity forced the cops to beat a hasty retreat and no trucks got through for the rest of the day. A huge steel container from the wharf was ‘magically’ concreted down in front of the main gate.

Special cop units should be disbanded

The police presence was very strong throughout the dispute with up to a hundred present at key moments. The cops were, as is usual in such disputes, from the Force Response Unit (FRU), the Protective Services Group and the Special Operations Group. These units were set up by the Labor Government and first used by the Liberals in 1993 at the Richmond Secondary College where they baton-charged peaceful and unarmed community picketers. They have been at all major industrial and community actions since. They injured and hospitalised a textile workers’ union organiser at a picket line in Tullamarine.

It is vital that these elite union-busting cop cowards are disbanded and that the cops involved in the violent attacks are charged and removed from service. At present the cops involved in baton charging the Richmond picketers are being rewarded with commendations.

The scale of the BTR dispute was not widely known amongst workers and the general community. It actively involved workers in all of the 40 plants owned by the BTR-Nylex company across Australia. These workers placed bans and were being dragged through the Industrial Relations Courtson a weekly basis. Once a ban was legally overturned, workers would place a new ban. Representatives from BTR’s other plants turned up at all the mass meetings in a magnificent display of solidarity. Today the struggle continues with the company victimising militants and moving to sack them.

All jobs are union jobs

With so many factors in favour of the ACI workers why were they unable to deal the company a comprehensive defeat? A full victory would have further boosted the morale of the entire working class movement and helped to turn the tide in the union movement leadership made the central issue the fight to turn forced redundancies into voluntary redundancies.

Whilst it was known that a small group of older workers were prepared to take redundancies their number was a far cry from the fifty that went in the end. Many, who finally accepted redundancy, were worn down by the dispute.

The top officials accepted compromise from the start and the maximum demand of no redundancies was never raised. It is an old but correct union principle that these are union jobs and that the positions must be maintained and filled with fellow unionists if a voluntary redundancy does occur.

The dispute could have been won with widespread industrial action in support of the Spotswood workers. This would have led other employers to put immense pressure on the ACI bosses to resolve the dispute. Many other Melbourne workers were more than willing to carry out such action. This was shown at a mass meeting after the baton attack. A successful motion calling for an indefinite strike at the first evidence of scabbing showed the workers’ willingness to fight. However, when it was clear that limited scabbing was happening, this motion was not invoked. The union leadership was not prepared to break the law and face fines and even the possible gaoling of organisers.

This timidity is a key characteristic of the well paid union bureaucracy. If it is not overcome the capitalists are guaranteed at least partial victories every time. However, when genuine union militants have been in the leadership of unions, anti-union laws have been blown asunder by rank and file action; fines have gone unpaid and prosecutions dropped. Right from the beginning leaders like Doug Cameron and John Corsetti attempted to stitch up secret deals with the ACI bosses. Only the determination of the rank and file and the organisers close to them stopped a wholesale sell-out like the Nestles dispute all the union militants were sacked. Despite the loss of 50 jobs the Spotswood workers stopped the ACI bosses forcing redundancies on targeted union militants. The militants are now back inside.

Most conditions have been maintained and a 16% pay rise over two years has been won. Workers also won high redundancy pay-outs starting with a standard 14 weeks for every worker.

Disgraceful role of TWU and AWU leaderships

Whilst there was magnificent solidarity from many other workers who contributed to the partial success of the dispute, there was a sour note. No thanks are due to the leaderships of several unions on the fringe of the dispute.

The role of the right wing leadership of the Transport Workers’ Union was particularly disgraceful. TWU members who nevertheless refused to cross picket lines are to be commended as are the production workers who refused by AWU Secretary Bob Smith. Bob Smith and his cronies have to be run out of the union movement.

Rank and File Control Essential

New and improved organisation of workers on the job will be key to winning future disputes. Workers are still controlled by the union bureaucracy and the militant organisers on the ground have little room to move. Strike committees and rank and file representation at all meetings are key to keeping the dispute in the hands of those who are directly involved. Workers were often uninformed and unclear about what was going on. If they had been given the decisive role in determining the strategies and tactics of the dispute then their natural instincts to go in hard and uncompromisingly would have borne fruit.

Instead they felt compelled to follow the leadership of the top union leaders who have had their militancy undermined by years of defeats and class collaboration under the ALP/ACTU accords. Workers are forced to rely on the courts. The old but true maxim that you never win more at the negotiating table than you have won on the battlefield is lost in legalistic mumbo jumbo. The battle needed to be waged primarily on the picket line and on the shopfloor. With the aid that was readily available from fellow workers, the ACI workers could have put up serious resistance to the trucks crossing the pickets; instead workers were told to stand back and let them through.

Struggle the key

The key lessons that need to be drawn from this dispute are that if you struggle hard you are in a good position to win. The problem is that workers are often unaware that they have other enemies apart from the bosses. There are also many very dangerous enemies among the highly paid union bosses, and not just the Bob Smiths either.

The conservative union bosses are a paid off layer who often work closely with the Labor Party to deliver cuts in workers’ jobs, wages and conditions. Many so-called reforms or restructures are nothing more than ways to further increase the profits of the already obscenely wealthy capitalists who are the real political masters of these ‘labour lieutenants of capital’. Sad but true; if the Liberals were not in power, threatening the livelihood of some of these union bosses, you would most likely have seen a big victory for the ACI bosses!

If workers are to defeat the Howard government’s full frontal assault on their rights and conditions, they will have to overcome the class traitors in their own ranks. Putting the power of the union right back into the hands of the membership is vital. This means transforming the unions into democratic fighting organisations.

Workers need to become acutely aware that there is no common ground between themselves and the capitalist owners. The society we live in is not run around workers’ needs and interests but rather the needs and interests the rich and powerful. Workers have every right to struggle in the most determined fashion to protect their jobs and raise the material well-being of themselves and their families.

Humane socialist system needed

It is said that this would destroy the economy yet the bosses used to say the same thing when we fought for the eight hour day! Workers create all the profits the rich enjoy. The real destruction of the economy and workers’ lives comes from allowing the capitalists to get richer and richer. This further transforms the economy into one which destroys our health care system, our education system, our public utilities – all with the aim of making a wealthy greedy few even wealthier.

Militant is fighting alongside workers not only to better their lot but to win them over to idea that the only really lasting solution to the terrible problems that are all around us is winning the big fight to bring about a truly humane democratic socialist system.

Militant helped out in this dispute by working with the ACI workers to put on solidarity fundraisers.

It was a wonderful sight to see AMWU organiser Vince Theuma accompanying Kev Carmody with his saxophone on the back of a semi, with the Westgate Bridge towering in the background. Congratulations to the rank and file unionists at ACI who not only helped themselves but all workers by putting up such a magnificent and hard fought struggle. The bosses will attack again but these workers will be even better prepared to win an outright victory. With workers in other BTR factories facing victimisation and the obvious desire of the BTR capitalists to crush the unions and bring in contracts, the fight is far from over.

By Simon Millar

Originally published in the November 1996 edition of The Militant, predecessor of The Socialist.

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