‘It’s a gun to our head’. Workers battle against aluminium giant

Alcoa’s Pinjarra refinery usually billows clouds of smoke. Today, it manages only a few thin streams. When this news is conveyed to striking workers picketing another refinery in Kwinana, it intensifies the sense of solidarity and common purpose among them. 

Around 1,600 workers at the Alcoa refineries in Kwinana, Pinjarra and Wagerup and the Huntley and Willowdale bauxite mines in Western Australia walked off the job indefinitely on 8 August after 20 months of failed negotiations with management. 

They are fighting for job security and higher pay. Australian Workers Union members have established 24-hour pickets at the entrances of each refinery. 

Alcoa wants to terminate the workplace agreement, push workers into temporary contract work and cut their pay. 

A union delegate at the Kwinana picket told Red Flag, “We feel it’s a gun to our head. If we go back to the award, that’s a 50 percent loss of wages, and reduced conditions. We don’t have a lot of choice but to fight now – if we wait and lose, it will be catastrophic for members. 

“We’ve been trying to negotiate for 20 months, trying to find a compromise. Like all big business, they see an opportunity while the Liberals are in to use loopholes in the law to reduce conditions”.

A mass meeting will take place on 17 August in Pinjarra, when workers will decide whether to continue the strike or accept the company’s next offer. 

Alcoa has maintained a scab workforce of labour hire and non-union employees to undermine the strike. But because it is taking place in three places at the same time, the strike is having a big impact. It is showing the power of the Alcoa workers and creating a sense of collective struggle absent in previous negotiations, when they had uncoordinated rolling strikes across each workplace. 

This strike also has wider ramifications. It is the latest battle in the war against bosses trying to terminate agreements in the Fair Work Commission, so that workers can be thrown back onto the award or onto old, inferior agreements, as happened at Murdoch University last year. 

Given Alcoa’s aggressive strategy, it seems unlikely the company will bring a reasonable offer to the table. Workers may well need to continue their strike.