Striking paper workers won’t quit until company backs down

Civil rights weren’t the only big winner out of the same sex marriage postal survey. Australia’s largest envelope producer – Australian Paper – did pretty well after getting the contract to supply the Bureau of Statistics with about 16 million survey envelopes. Now, after locking away an unexpected profit boost, the company is attacking the workers that helped produced the windfall.

Around 90 envelope production workers at Australian Paper’s Preston, Melbourne, site have been on strike since 16 January. “They’ve strung us along”, explains Margaret Peacock, lead Australian Manufacturing Workers Union delegate at the site. She’s talking about the marriage survey job.

News that the company was tendering for the contract came during enterprise agreement negotiations. The workers say that the company suckered them into working extra shifts and overtime to meet the contract deadline. “They lied to us and led us to believe [an agreement] was in the bag”, she says.

Instead, as soon as the survey envelopes were delivered, the company came back to the bargaining table pushing harder than before. “We thought we had it nearly sorted”, says AMWU organiser Dean Griffiths. But when bargaining started after the survey, the company said it had “changed its point of view” and was going after claims that had earlier been dropped, including cuts to rostered days off and a freeze on wage increases for some. “Deal with it, we’re not moving”, was the company’s new bargaining position, according to the union.

The workers – almost all of whom are in the union – elected to deal with the company’s back flip by walking out the gate. “Last EBA we did simple things – we [struck] half a day here and a day there, but this is the first time we’ve ever gone out indefinite, ever”, says Margaret. “I don’t think they were expecting us to do it – they still probably think we’ll give up.”

As evidence that they have no intention of giving up, Margaret pulls out the roster she draws up every day to ensure that there’s an even spread of workers on the picket. Everyone gets their name marked off when they get there. It’s this organisation that Margaret thinks is important to keeping spirits high on the picket. “Everybody is still strong”, she says. “We’re not going to give up. If we give up now we’ll never get anything and the next EBA they’ll take more and more”.

As lead delegate, Margaret is called “mother of the chapel” by other workers. It’s an old print union custom. She’s worked at Australian Paper for 33 years, 10 of those as delegate and five as “mother of the chapel”, a title she carries proudly.

Many workers have been here a long time. Most have more than 20 years clocked up. This group will be hit hardest by one of the company’s main attacks – “grandfathering” wage increases. Dean explains that this essentially means freezing the wages of the highest paid workers until the lowest paid “catch up”. For some, it would be four or five years before they see another increase.

No one here is on big money. Margaret, with more than 30 years in the job, is on $21 an hour. “All of the girls are”, she says. That’s where the rostered days off come in. “That’s the only good thing about working here”, she explains. They get 16 RDOs a year. The company wants to cut that down to 12. “They want everything and they’re giving us nothing.”

The workers are demanding that their RDOs remain unchanged, and they want an annual wage increase of 2.5 percent and back pay to the date that their last agreement expired – 20 March 2017. The company has told the union it won’t negotiate until it calls off the picket. Margaret says that’s not happening. The workers have left things open to talk to the company but they won’t go back in until they get some movement.

“I really think that they’re going to have to give up”, she says. “It’s not as easy as they think – some of the bosses in there think that you just press a button and the machine runs. You’ve got to know how to set it. They need us to run the machines – to make the envelopes and to get them out.”

With reports that envelope stocks at some Officeworks stores are dwindling, the strikers know that the company is feeling the pressure.

The Australian Paper workers’ picket runs from 5am until 11pm Monday to Friday. The workers are asking supporters and union activists to drop by for a sausage and a chat at 54 Raglan Street, Preston.