Glass workers: ‘We’ve had enough’

5 August 2019
Kaye BroadbentCameron Rowe

Kaye Broadbent in Brisbane

The O-I Glass workforce started a week of industrial action on Monday 15 July, establishing a picket outside the South Brisbane factory. Their action was in response to management’s belligerence in negotiations for a new agreement.

O-I Glass is a US-based multinational that manufactures nearly 98 percent of glass containers in Australia. If you drink beer or soft drink from a bottle, chances are it’s made by workers at O-I Glass. It has sites in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane, where it has been producing glass bottles for more than 100 years.

The factory operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with some of the more than 200-strong workforce having worked there for more than 30 years – as electricians, maintenance workers and factory operators. Over the decades, workers have fought for and gained important conditions including overtime pay, heat and dirt allowances and confined space allowances, some on the basis of handshake agreements.

More recently, the workers have tried to formalise and protect their conditions by securing industrial agreements, but management has resisted. As one maintenance worker told Red Flag, “We know we have good conditions because we’ve fought for them, but management is not honouring these conditions”. During negotiations, workers were told that they could pick five of their existing conditions for management to consider formalising.

Heat exposure is a particularly serious issue because workers constantly deal with molten glass. Despite management proclaiming its commitment to safety, one electrician observed, “When safety issues are raised, management says it’s too hard”.

Management is refusing to speak to the striking workers. All 60 maintenance workers voted against management’s proposed agreement when it was put to them.

Since the strike began, production has been severely reduced, with mechanical problems causing delays and product quality affected. The strike will continue for at least a week. Pickets have so far been lively, and visits from Scabby the Rat and toots from passing motorists show the striking workers have a lot of support.


Cameron Rowe in Melbourne

Melbourne’s Bourke Place boomed with chants of “Pay your taxes, pay your workers” and “Michael Brown, you’re a clown, come on down” on 25 July.

O-I Glass workers haven’t had a pay increase in seven years, while the director of operations, Michael Brown, “earns” a salary of $11 million and travels on a private jet. Needless to say, Brown didn’t come down to address workers’ demands.

The picket of 40 workers and officials from the electrical and manufacturing unions outside the company’s head office was the latest action by workers in Melbourne. They have also imposed overtime bans and held a series of one-day strikes.

A worker from the company’s Spotswood plant commented, “We’re skilled workers! We make every step in production happen, and the bosses like to pretend it’s not true. They want to imagine we’re robots”. I’ve found the level of respect shown to workers by their employers correlates directly with the level of organisation, solidarity and industrial power. O-I Glass workers know this very well and have more actions planned.

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