Seventy workers in the Victorian border town of Echuca are holding out against an aggressive attempt to gut their wages and conditions. The Parmalat factory, which usually manufactures dairy products, has been shut for more than 40 days due to a lockout imposed by the company. It has also asked the Fair Work Commission to terminate the existing agreement. If its application wins, Parmalat – whose Australian operations took in $1.6 billion in 2015 – will be entitled to put its workers on to award rates of pay.
The workers have set up camp outside the gates of the factory, protesting their treatment. The unions representing workers, the AMWU and ETU, remain in negotiation to settle the dispute. “At every meeting the members have become more and more determined for a just resolution and refused to be intimidated by the bullying tactics of Parmalat”, AMWU organiser Tom Hale told Red Flag.
There are a number of issues on which the company has so far refused to budge, including a clause relating to contract labour. The company wants to be able to contract labour, at its discretion, to undertake maintenance tasks. This would undermine union power, conditions of work and safety standards at the plant. As the agreement currently stands, the company must consult with the unions covering maintenance workers before engaging contractors. Union members have also rejected a clause that would allow the company to employ new workers on lower pay and worse conditions than existing staff.
Despite numerous meetings with the unions since the lockout, the company has refused to drop these claims and is continuing to try to bully the workers into submission. It recently arranged to turn the water off at the taps that were supplying the camp.
The company has ridden roughshod over the unions by issuing a secret ballot asking the workers to approve an agreement that does not have union endorsement. As predicted, the agreement was rejected, but workers also used the opportunity to compile a “lockout top 10” playlist which included Bruce Springsteen’s “No surrender” and “The no no song” by Ringo Starr.
The Fair Work Commission has also tried to conciliate the dispute, but the workers are standing firm and want their right to bargain collectively respected.
“Members want to hang on to their existing conditions and are not going to give in without a fight, but this is about much more than pay and conditions, this is about justice in the workplace and the right to be represented by a union”, Hale said.
The Parmalat workers’ camp is being supported by donations of food and supplies from workers at nearby factories. They are also seeking solidarity from Parmalat’s other sites at Bendigo and in Brisbane, where production from the Echuca site has been transferred. Both sites are covered by the NUW.
The lockout has been a costly exercise for the company, workers estimating that it’s costing $90,000 a day in lost production.