MELBOURNE: The first big dispute in Victoria within the framework of the new federal Workplace Relations Act (WRA) has erupted at the Mobil cracker job in Altona. Although the site was originally covered by notorious ‘yellow’ unions, these were replaced by a militant workforce represented by left wing unions. The dispute was triggered when the principal contractor, John Holland, was sacked by Mobil for incompetence and delays.
The cracker and the Baboon
Way behind schedule, Hollands demanded more money for the job, but Mobil refused. The old site management was replaced by an even more incompetent team which deliberately provoked industrial action. A huge foreman nicknamed ‘the Baboon’ was brought in to terrorise the workforce.
Under the new WRA, Mobil attempted both to sack the contractor and to replace the workforce with imported ‘grubs’ from the right wing Australian Workers’ Union. Past practice has been that the new contractor rehires the existing workforce. Mobil’s schemes have been made easier by the AMWU and other main unions which have signed up the major labour hire firms under the MECA award. These companies have been kept out of many sites in the past for employing non-union labour at below award rates. The bosses’ ploy has been to pay the going union rate to this new workforce and sign it up to the appropriate unions. This has muddied the issue of scabbing and threatened the militant backbone of the unions.
High stakes in dispute
The militants are also in peril from ‘the enemy within’; namely the ALP-controlled union bureaucracy which is only interested in its own positions and privileges. Now that they get dues from thousands of previously non-union bodyhire workers, it is clear that the bureaucrats will if possible collaborate under the new WRA laws. Altona is the heartland of the Victorian union movement and Victoria is the power base of the union movement nationally. If Mobil can win in Altona they will inflict a huge defeat on the union movement.
The new IR laws have meant that the union leadership has backed away from any full-on industrial action. Writs issued on the union mean that the bosses can take the dispute to the criminal courts. This will increase their power to bankrupt and even gaol union organisers and shop stewards. Mobil also has won an injunction which means that any card-carrying union member caught standing in front of the gates could be immediately arrested. Mobil can also sue any official who blacks the site for lost production.
The unions have unofficially blacked the site and stewards have been at the gates to keep an eye on things and to explain the situation to any workers who attempt to enter the site. Mobil has thus far been beaten by the generalised militancy of the Altona area. There have been no more than twenty scabs on site who have done no work of any significance.
Recently, a mass meeting of union members was called and although some people were nervous of a possible poor turn-out, it was the best attended meeting for many years. The union officials spoke fairly briefly, leaving a good amount of time for rank and file imput. A lot of anger was directed at the cowardly role of the unions’ leadership. AMWU organiser Craig Johnson moved the main motion which called for mass meeting across the state followed by a stewards’ meeting to plan the fightback. It was made clear that this the issue was bigger than Mobil and that this was the first step in the battle to bring down the IR laws. Craig Johnson and others also made clear that this battle could only be won industrially. Amidst jubilation, the motion was passed unanimously.
Mobil appears to have backtracked as a result and the IRC has ordered a mass meeting for March14. It seems that Mobil has decided that it would be too expensive to confront the unions head-on and that getting the cracker built means rehiring the Holland’s workers.
Still, they want a $40 wage cut, work in the rain and a no strike clause for six months. It is also rumoured that want to keep the two leading shop stewards off site. It is very unlikely that the militant Holland’s workers will accept these demands. They have have given more than most workforces to the struggles of fellow unionists. They dug deep to give money to the ACI and EP Robinson workers and were there last year on the mass picket at ACI. They know well how to defend themselves.
By Simon Millar
Originally published in the February 1997 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist.