Until recently, I worked for a book printing company in western Sydney. In early July, human resources pulled me into a meeting to tell me I was redundant, effective immediately. I was escorted off site, not even allowed to say goodbye to my colleagues. Just two weeks earlier, I had become the delegate for the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and started a campaign for an enterprise agreement.
The company has about 80 employees, 60 in production and 20 in the office. I was the scheduler, which meant my time was split between the office and the floor. This gave me the privilege of engaging with the whole cross-section of workers. Migrants, Islanders and women form a big part of the workforce and have been some of the most energised to unionise the place.
When I discovered the company had no agreement, I decided to ask my co-workers about the last time they had a pay rise. It was like letting loose the hounds of hell. No raise for five years. $22 an hour after 27 years of service. Dreaming of a holiday but struggling to put petrol in the car. So, with the union, I organised a lunchtime meeting. To our delight, about 25 people showed up, including many non-members, and I was elected delegate.
After this first meeting the workplace was buzzing with talk of the union. From a starting point of 17 members, five more joined immediately. There was so much frustration spilling over, with people confronting managers about getting a pay rise or stopping their bullying.
Then came the counter-attack. Management dragged every worker who had attended the first union meeting into a room and told them that joining the union would put the company out of business. One particularly vocal member was moved to a far-flung corner of the factory.
In response, another lunchtime meeting was called, and 20 people attended despite management’s intimidation. Two more joined. Momentum was swinging back in our favour. In a panic, the company showed me the door.
Since then, management have been stalking union members around every inch of the factory, even hiding behind pallets to eavesdrop, and in one case yelling at a worker, “Are you talking about Tom?!”
The dismissal was a shock, but I am determined to fight it. Sacking a delegate is an attack on all workers. It is great that the union is waging an unfair dismissal case. But since Fair Work is a bosses’ court, a meaningful victory will have to involve shopfloor action.
I have been going to the factory at lunchtimes and talking to whoever I can. Thanks to these conversations, I learned that another office worker resigned the very next day for a much better paying job. Management begged him to stay on for another week, even offering to match his new pay. It warmed my heart to hear that he refused because it would have meant doing my work.
Sadly, the intensified intimidation by management is beginning to have an effect. The union going on site immediately could have made a big difference, but that didn’t happen. We did eventually have a lunchtime meeting outside the gates so I could tell whoever came that I was fighting hard to come back. A small handful of angry workers showed up, and that gave me hope. One of them left with a bundle of sign-up forms in their hand, letting us know that they “didn’t fucking care” if management came after them. The fear is superficial – underneath lie years and years of bitterness about pay and ill treatment. And the experience has turned several of the workers into serious unionists.
I’m determined to get my job back. It’s an open and shut unfair dismissal. But win or lose, I’m proud of myself and my workmates who have proven in a few short weeks that we are a force to be reckoned with and that the union is here to stay.