Around 60 maintenance workers walked out the gates of SPC Ardmona’s Shepparton processing plant for the final time on Friday 2 May. They were the last of 73 workers who were sacked by the fruit packing company last year.

Two days after Christmas, they were told that they would be replaced with contract labour in the new year. “They’ve basically lost 1,400 years of experience in terms of that plant”, ETU organiser Damian King told Red Flag.

“The first we knew that there was any issue with the employment conditions of the maintenance workers and the so-called future of the business was on December 4 last year”, says King.

“There was an article in The Australian that said the government was concerned about the extravagant conditions of SPC maintenance employees.

“It was absolute nonsense … ludicrous claims. Nobody from the government or The Australian bothered to check … I don’t know what SPC were doing.”  

SPC and parent company Coca-Cola Amatil were attempting to secure a bailout from the federal government. The company was asking for $25 million to subsidise an overhaul of plant and equipment at its Goulburn Valley cannery.

King explains that SPC managing director Peter Kelly told the union before Christmas that the government wanted a “significant reduction in [workers’] conditions” before it would consider funding the company. It wanted the maintenance workers on award rates, he said.

Dropping to the award would have meant cutting wages almost in half. Kelly said that if the union accepted a 20 percent pay cut, he could “try to sell that” to the government instead. 

The workers – with an average of 18 years’ experience – wouldn’t cop it. “People thought it was totally unacceptable that they should have to bear the burden”, recalls King of their initial response.

The workers, Goulburn Valley locals, instead offered to accept a two-year wage freeze. It wasn’t enough. “It only encouraged the government”, says King. “It made them more hungry.”     

Now the workers have clocked off for the last time. SPC has directed its contractor not to offer a single one of them a job. King, a union organiser for decades, says this is the first time he’s seen a manufacturer give such a direction.

“Mostly the labour hire would be begging and the company would be very keen on most of the maintenance people going across to the contractor.” He describes the company’s final act as “pretty petty”.

In the end, the company got its money, from the Victorian, not the federal, government. A Liberal premier got to play regional saviour and champion of jobs in front of the cameras.

A bunch of workers got the dole queue.