Christmas on the picket line

Workers feeling the sharp end of employer attacks on wages and conditions are doing it tough this Christmas. Coal miners at Oaky North in Queensland have been locked out since July. Workers at Esso’s Longford gas plant near Sale, Victoria, have been on strike since June, and maintenance workers at the Griffin coal mine in Collie, Western Australia, have been out since August. All are trying to defend hard-won entitlements.

Red Flag spoke to Collie maintenance workers, members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), a few days before Christmas. Like most coal mining towns, Collie has a strong union tradition. When we arrived to find the picket empty, we asked the nearest group of people wearing hi-vis for help. They turned out to be unionists who worked at a local power plant.

“We’re all socialists here”, said the first person we spoke to, who gave us a beer each and called everyone he knew to get us in touch with the strikers. Soon, we were sitting down with a group of Griffin maintenance workers in the office of the local Labor MLA, himself a former coal worker.

The cause of the strike was the company’s decision to terminate its enterprise agreement in June 2016. The maintenance workers’ contract reverted to the award minimum, meaning an immediate 43 percent pay cut on a per-hour basis, and loss of entitlements. But even this wasn’t enough for Griffin.

“We believe the company has been manipulating the award”, said one striker. “One blatant one was they didn’t recognise Christmas Day and ANZAC day as public holidays.” Griffin also refused to pay sick leave on Sundays, demanded an unreasonable amount of overtime, and implemented a new family-unfriendly roster.

“It was evil. They’d done their best to make it as mean as possible.”

After a year on the award, with Griffin management showing no sign of wanting to negotiate a new agreement, the maintenance workers voted to walk out the gate to demand a new contract.

They were feeling the strain at Christmas after months without pay.

“I guess it’s a bit emotional for a lot of people now that it’s Christmas and perhaps you can’t do what you did with your family or for your kids or for others”, said one maintenance worker.

“Financially we’re hamstrung”, said another. “The guys that have got a big mortgage, kids and all that sort of thing, it does take its toll. You definitely tighten the purse strings for when its Christmas time.”

Donations from other unions and the community have kept them going, with two unions bringing Christmas presents for school-age kids from the affected families.

The strike is now the longest in Western Australian coal mining history, a record the maintenance workers never intended to set.

“Even we wouldn’t have expected to be here for this long. But they’re more than happy to string it out. They would love us to crumble.” Another chimed in: “You get the feeling that they’re trying to starve us out”.

For Griffin, the dispute seems to have become as much about teaching the unionists a lesson as it is about the money. In November, the company pulled its own offer from the table when the parties were close to reaching an agreement. The maintenance workers have been replaced with scab contractors paid more than what the strikers are asking, and Griffin has spent a fortune on legal fees. All this while the company says the strikers’ demands are unaffordable. One worker summed up Griffin’s attitude:

“Since we’ve been so strong and our camaraderie’s been really good, because they haven’t been able to break us and we’ve still been together, I think it’s a personal vendetta … to make sure they get the job done by ultimately smashing us … You just sort of get the idea that because we’ve said no to ’em on every turn and we just want that little bit of a better deal, now they’ve made it personal and they’re just out there to punish us.”

Everyone we spoke to expressed frustration at the rigged industrial laws. The picketers are not attempting to blockade the mine or stop production. Fair Work has threatened massive fines if they do.

“They can impose a loss on us but we can’t impose a loss on them … Fair Work doesn’t work”, was how one striker summed it up. “If only we could turn the power off for a week”, said another. “Imagine that! I’m sure somebody would ring!”

Despite the hardship, there is determination. The Collie strikers know that they are part of a nation-wide battle to maintain hard-won rights. Their message for the strikers at Esso and Oaky North was simple: “Stick together, stay strong … We’re really proud that they can stick together. And actually it gives us good morale too to keep on going”.

Red Flag also visited the picket line outside Esso’s Longford gas plant in Victoria. The workers there, also members of the AMWU, walked out in June over a new contract that offered a 30 percent pay cut. They also lost their roster arrangements of one week on, one week off and faced two, three or even four weeks in a row at the whim of management.

“This fight goes well beyond our own self-interests”, said Malcolm, an AMWU delegate at Esso, speaking of the fight to maintain wages and conditions across the country. “Basically, our resolve is so strong because we are in the right; we won’t succumb to their bullying and intimidation.”

The Esso strikers’ resolve is impressive, with pickets continuing without breaks over Christmas and New Year’s. “It’s so rewarding to be able to stand together with everyone and fight for our rights, even at Christmas”, said Malcolm. “It’s a comfort in itself to know that what we’re fighting for is a better place.”

The workers at Esso have also come face to face with the rigged industrial laws. Not only could they face fines if scabs were blocked from the workplace, but Fair Work has threatened them for simply raising their voices. On 21 December, a court injunction banned the workers from using a megaphone or derogatory language towards scabs.

About 20 workers have also received letters banning them from any property owned by Exxon-Mobil (Esso is the Australian affiliate of Exxon-Mobil), effectively blacklisting them from future work with Esso. This comes after 24/7 surveillance of the picket line by the company.

One Esso worker said his dad was arrested three times in a past dispute for lying on the road to stop scabs from crossing a picket line. “That’s why we’re out here”, he said. “Everything we have, someone’s old man got arrested for. We can’t just give it up – it wouldn’t be right.”

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To help out the workers at Oaky North, Collie and Gippsland, chip in to the Union families appeal: https://www.australianunions.org.au/union_families.