More than six months after they were sacked, most of the Carlton United Breweries maintenance workers have walked back into their workplace. They entered through an honour guard of union flags, with chants ringing out and the strains of a Scottish pipe band filling the air.
This capped off a dispute that stretched for 185 days. It was one of the highest profile industrial disputes this year. In early June, CUB sacked all 55 maintenance electricians and fitters at the company’s Abbotsford brewery in Melbourne. The workers were told they could reapply for their jobs at what amounted to a 65 percent pay cut, according to the Electrical Trades Union. They refused and instead established a protest camp on the brewery’s gate.
Despite the company bussing scabs in and out of the site, the lack of an experienced maintenance workforce had some impact on production. Company documents leaked in November showed that CUB was dealing with heightened production costs and uncertainties surrounding its ability to produce enough product for spikes in demand.
Over the course of the dispute, donations from tens of thousands of supporters totalled more than $1.1 million, according to Troy Grey, ETU state secretary. Calls for solidarity, however, were limited to requests for financial support and a consumer boycott campaign. The unions involved stopped short of organising serious strike action, including by other unions members still working inside the brewery.
Under the agreement that ended the dispute, everyone in the protest camp who wanted their job back, got their job back, said ETU site organiser Steve Diston. According to the union, the agreement retains the workers’ conditions – even if the maintenance contract changes hands again – and includes an undertaking that the workers will be employed for the length of the agreement (which expires at the end of 2019). Diston said the agreement also includes a 2 percent annual pay rise. One sting in the tail is that fitters will move to rotating shifts. The electricians were already on a rotating roster.
The workers officially started back at work on 19 December. The first two weeks back are inductions and training, which include the company telling workers how to talk to scabs. After Fair Work ordered workers not use the word “scab” on the picket line, some are worried that management will use this as a means of victimising people as they go back to work. One worker said: “They’ve already told us that if we refuse to talk to the scabs it’s bullying and if we talk to them in the wrong way it’s harassment, so what are we meant to do?”
The CUB maintenance workers walked back into work with a win under their belts, having stopped a mass sacking and gutting of their conditions. Speaking at the victory march, Steve Diston said: “They’re your conditions, you’ve won them – they weren’t given to you as charity by anybody in a suit. And you’ve kept them safe”.
In the words of Alan Dinon, a long time worker at CUB, speaking on ABC radio: “If you stick together you can win”.