Plasterboard workers have walked out of the CSR Gyprock Yarraville factory in Melbourne’s western suburbs for the first time in decades and have set up a CFMEU strike camp.
Management is offering a measly 2.5 percent per year pay rise, while workers are demanding 4 percent per year. Given that CSR pays its workers $4.40 per hour less than its competitors, a 4 percent increase in the context of 3 percent inflation is a modest demand.
During the previous contract negotiations, workers accepted a substandard offer in the context of the economic uncertainties of the pandemic. They stopped work for two hours to put their demands, but that was all. Now, most think that they were divided badly and didn’t know what’s happening in other areas.
CSR’s profits have since increased by 30 percent in just half a year, adding up to $86.6 million lining the pockets of wealthy shareholders and executives. Two senior executives have awarded themselves $1.2 million in bonuses, bringing their total annual remuneration to $3,747,826.
After working through the pandemic, agreeing to lose rostered days off and putting their health on the line while managers worked from home, workers were enraged that management refused to negotiate the overdue and modest wage increase.
But this time, they started preparing for the negotiations earlier. In several meetings and discussions between workers in different sections and shifts, they decided to ban overtime and have two work stoppages. Management threatened not to pay them for a whole day if they stopped for two hours. So, on 25 November, they went on strike.
“I have been here 30-plus years”, one worker told Red Flag. “At the beginning, wages and conditions were best in the area. That time everyone was in the union. Now the money we are making is not enough to live in the area.”
Some workers have been at the factory for decades, while “newbies” have been employed for four to five years. So it’s a long-term workforce. But the company structure has created divisions. For example, forklift drivers in warehouse areas earn roughly $10 less than their mates in production.
“I have been here only a few years, and it’s my first strike”, another worker said. “It’s not easy to pay bills without an income, but I think it’s very important to stick together this time so we can go inside as a united team. This is not only about wages; we deserve respect here. Managers don’t give a shit about us.”
When management offered the workers a deal that would suit only half the workplace, workers rejected it on the basis of solidarity and say that they will stay out until they are all given the desperately needed and more than deserved pay increase.
Out of a workforce of around 60 people, only three are scabbing. No plasterboard can be produced because all skilled full-time workers are striking. They are the only ones able to operate the complex machinery. Boilers have been turned off and will take days to restart once the dispute is settled.
This has left Bunnings, one of CSR’s main customers, with no plasterboard to fill their orders. As this CSR site provides plasterboard not just for Bunnings, but most construction in Melbourne, the halt in production of such an important product is likely to affect this multi-billion-dollar industry.
Considering workers have not taken strike action at CSR in so long, they were buoyed by the support of the CFMEU. Visiting delegations of shop stewards have made them feel as though they aren’t alone in this fight. Union pride also sends a signal to CSR management that the strikers won’t easily be beaten.
The picket line is at 277 Whitehall St, Yarraville. Visitors are most welcome. Support the CSR CFMEU strike fund.