‘Too bad mate, we’re out the gate’: steel strike in Melbourne’s west

Workers at G.A.M. Steel, in Melbourne’s western suburbs, have been strike since 11 May. They are negotiating for a new enterprise agreement and are fighting to protect conditions and win a modest wage rise. This is the first time that the site’s 60 National Union of Workers members have struck, but they say they are in it to win.

“We won’t go back for less than 3.5 percent”, union delegate Darrell Jones told Red Flag. “They say they’re broke like all companies say they’re broke, but they’re putting on new employees and buying new equipment and new trucks. They’re spending a lot of money and we just want a little bit of it, that’s all.”

The company is also trying to eliminate gazetted holiday entitlements, which require it to pay holiday rates on a weekday before or after a public holiday if it falls on a weekend. It also wants to cut the paid union picnic day.

According to Darrell, the vote to strike was unanimous. “I was really surprised by it [the response to the strike], but they’ve got behind it and said ‘this is the time to stand up and let’s do what we’ve got to do.’ They’re all here and they’re all willing to stay”, he said.

The first offer from the company was worse even than what is currently on the table. It included a pay offer of just 0.5 percent a year, and a cap on redundancy payments that would have meant that the longest standing workers lose tens of thousands of dollars if made redundant.

“That’s an insult”, said Jess [not her real name] one of the youngest and newest workers in the shed. “They’re pretty much just saying ‘we don’t give a shit about you.’ I think it’s really turned in to a moral thing now. We just think we’re worth more than that.”

The company eventually agreed to leave the redundancy alone and increased the pay offer when the workers refused to back down, but the difference was still too large for the workers to accept. As Jess said, “too bad mate, we’re out the gate”.

The company is now doing everything it can to break the workers, including filing for injunctions to bar union officials and delegates from the picket line. It also tried to get steel out of another factory, but when word of the plan made it to the picket, a few people quickly jumped in their cars to stop the trucks before they could get out.

“Being out here makes me feel like I’m supporting my mates”, Jess said. “It makes me feel united with everyone else. Stick to your guns. You know what your worth is; don’t let anyone else tell you anything different.”

According to the workers, G.A.M. is a massive steel importer and provides steel for prefabricated factories and warehouses across Victoria and Tasmania: they can pump out as much as 450 tonnes of steel product each day to feed the ravenous construction industry. The company’s website boasts that it provided steel for the MCG, Skilled Stadium, the West Gate Bridge upgrade and the Chadstone Shopping Centre expansion.

“They’ve been making phenomenal amounts of money”, a pair of older strikers told Red Flag. “We have toolbox meetings each week and they will get up and brag about how they are making record profits, but somehow it all dries up during an EBA period.”

“We have got an aged group here, but people feel that when they leave or retire they want to pass on those conditions that we’ve fought for over the years. We want to keep them there for the people that come in. There’s no use coming to work if you’re getting shit and you’re treated like a goddamn dog all the time.”

Supporters are encouraged to visit – 557 Mt Derrimut Road, Derrimut.