It’s a pretty place for a picket line, an unlikely setting for a crucial working class struggle. Workers in the small north-east Victorian town of Myrtleford have found themselves on the front lines of resistance against an aggressive, anti-worker push being carried out by some of the biggest corporations in the country.
Carter Holt Harvey is a giant timber company owned by New Zealand-based billionaire Graeme Hart. Hart is one of the richest 200 people in the world, according to Forbes Magazine, with a fortune of $US9.7 billion. One of the dozen facilities operated by CHH in Australia is the biggest plywood mill in the country and Myrtleford’s biggest employer.
In mid-April, CHH escalated a routine enterprise bargaining dispute by locking out its entire Myrtleford workforce of around 200. Seven weeks later, the workers are still on the picket line.
Workers, family and supporters drop by. An enormous pile of wood keeps four stoves going – timber workers, not surprisingly, seem to have access to a hell of a lot of timber. The eternal picket line sausage is supplemented by a choice of toppings on baked potatoes. In between politely answering my endless questions, picketers swap news and offer cups of tea.
At one level, the picketers explain, the dispute is straightforward. The workers’ initial log of claims was 36 items intended to improve their working lives. Over 15 months of negotiations, management refused to give ground on anything. The workers dropped more and more of their claims – leaving only three key demands.
First, there’s the money. For years, these workers accepted the company line that times were tough and settled for wage increases at or below inflation. This time, the ply mill is booming after the company (with taxpayer-funded assistance) installed a $50 million upgrade – including a new lathe that can “peel” a log into ply strips in nine seconds flat. The workers say that a 3 percent annual wage rise is reasonable. The company isn’t budging.
Graeme Hart, meanwhile, nearly doubled his wealth last year.
Second, the workers want a break over Christmas. A couple of years ago, CHH exploited a gap in the enterprise agreement to scrap the traditional two-week Christmas shutdown. For workers with kids, and with family sometimes spread around the north-east of the state or further afield, having no guaranteed Christmas break is unacceptable. They want one week off over Christmas. The company isn’t budging.
Graeme Hart, meanwhile, can choose whether to enjoy his Christmas in the three-level banquet hall of his $NZ39 million Auckland mansion, or in the spa or sculpture gardens at his new $NZ24 million Queenstown hideaway.
Finally, the workers want quicker access to income protection. Years ago, they gave up part of a pay rise to pay for the scheme, which provides a basic income if a worker has an accident off the job. They want this assistance to kick in after two weeks, not three months, so injured workers don’t have to choose between paying bills or keeping food on the table. The company isn’t budging.
The biggest dilemma facing Hart, meanwhile, seems to be whether he should sell or keep the smallest of his super yacht collection, a 107-metre $NZ266 million mini-cruise ship.
When the workers started bans and short stoppages to pursue their much reduced claim, the company locked them out. But the company’s agenda is more than just a few dollars: it has an aggressive log of claims.
The current enterprise agreement isn’t some bonanza for the workers. A level 3 machine operator gets a base rate of $24.64 per hour. It’s not enough to get rich: it would take a worker on this wage 5,312 years to earn what Hart spent on his yacht last year.
But one of the real protections enjoyed by the workers is that their rosters can be changed only with their agreement. The company wants to scrap this, taking the right to shift workers around at will. This can play hell with workers’ lives. And as one of the picketers pointed out to Red Flag, it also leaves the door open to management victimisation of union members.
The company has announced it will put its cut-price enterprise agreement to a vote on 8 and 9 June.
The locked-out workers are confident the proposed agreement will be voted down. But their task is complicated by a non-union group. While unionists are threatened with disciplinary action, including the sack, if they speak to the media, these would-be scabs get favourable write-ups in the local papers.
The non-union group includes some long term workers, but also many recently hired casual workers. Picketers bristle at the injustice: a student up from Melbourne, working in their gap year, gets to vote away conditions in an agreement that workers will be stuck with for years.
The talk continues around the camp fires and under the tarps. A game of darts starts and finishes. Picketers talk about workers who come over from Carter Holt Harvey’s New Zealand operations, and how amazed they are that workers here get overtime rates after eight hours, rather than a flat rate. I hear stories about the last strike at the mill, 23 years ago. After a week or so out the gate, workers went back in but put bans on – they would carry out production as usual, but not allow anything out of the mill. After another couple of weeks, the boss surrendered.
This time is different. Unions have suffered years of defeat and retreat – often without much of a fight. John Howard’s WorkChoices attack on union rights was beaten back, but Labor’s replacement Fair Work laws never really gave back our industrial rights.
Now, major companies like CHH, Fletcher Insulation in Melbourne, Esso in Bass Strait and many others feel that the time is right for a frontal assault at key industrial sites where long-established union conditions have survived the attacks of the past few decades.
So what started out as a routine enterprise agreement dispute has developed into an important test of wills, with ramifications that reach beyond the scenic surrounds of Myrtleford. CHH wants to show its workforce around Australia that it can steamroll their unions, including the Forestry division of the CFMEU, and strip key conditions. On the other hand, a win by the workers at Myrtleford can make employers around the country think twice about trying to trash conditions.
Though Graeme Hart has never in his life stripped a log for ply, or installed or maintained a lathe, he owns the ply mill. This gives him the “right” to shut the gates and try to starve workers and their families into submission. He has the best lawyers that a billionaire can buy, paid by the hour to find the biggest possible holes in the threadbare legal protections given to workers under the Fair Work Act.
The workers might be frustrated but, even after seven weeks of lockout, they have their heads up. Picketers talk about a recent visit by union delegates from the Parmalat dairy factory in the small northern Victorian town of Echuca. Those workers stuck out a 62-day lockout, and came out the other side with their conditions intact and their wages improved.
The Myrtleford ply mill workers are now on the front line. They need our solidarity to win this battle. Visit the Myrtleford workers at their protest camp at the Carter Holt Harvey ply mill, Yackandandah Road, Myrtleford.
Click here to donate to the lockout fund.