About 60 machine operators at Fenner Dunlop in West Footscray began an indefinite strike on 16 September. The company, owned by Michelin Group, supplies mining companies with industry grade conveyor belts. Its customers include the Adani Group, currently developing the Carmichael Coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
The workers, who are 100 percent unionised in the National Union of Workers, are highly skilled, but you wouldn’t know it from the paltry pay and conditions on site. Earning between $25 and $28 an hour, they depend on overtime to make ends meet, sometimes working 72-hour weeks. Their demands include a 6 percent pay rise and no mandatory overtime. The company is attempting to enforce a 52-hour working week, up from the usual 38 hours.
“We didn’t come here for fun”, a night shift worker told Red Flag. “It’s more about how much they value us. If they valued us, we wouldn’t be out here.”
In the lead-up to the strike, the company has sought to squeeze the workers by enforcing a speed-up and hiring private company Secora to introduce new work discipline practices, including policing workers’ productivity and individually targeting those who can’t keep up. After a decades-long mining boom and no pay rise since 2009, these workers are out to show management that it’s high time they had a share of the company’s huge profits.
Kevin has worked at the West Footscray Fenner Dunlop plant for more than 30 years. He spoke to Red Flag’s Oscar Sterner.
What are you on strike over?
Better conditions and a wage increase. We’re low paid here, and the guys deserve a bit more. They want us to work some silly hours. In the first initial bargaining, they wanted us to work 50 hours locked in rather than 38 hours locked in, and then they also looked at shift structures. So they were trying to eliminate overtime initially. It was only last week they actually decided to drop that part of it, so now we’re starting to move a little bit forward with the agreement.
How do these issues affect the workers here?
At the end of the day, people want to live. With the price of petrol going up, the cost of living, you want to be able to have a good life, you don’t want to be stuck here doing 70 hours a week and not getting anywhere in life. Uneducated ... unskilled people deserve to live as well; we can’t just be pushed to the side.
How long have you been on strike?
We went on strike Monday, so this is our sixth day. It’s getting along all right. The company’s been coming out having a few chats here and there ... they’ve made a little bit of ground, but not much. It took three days before they finally came out and spoke to us, and that was only because we went to Michelin and done a little protest there. We’re trying to get a bit of pressure on the company so they will come and talk to us rather than just letting us sit out here. The guys are willing to sit as long as it takes.
How much do the bosses here make compared to what it costs them to pay their workers?
There’s rumours that by the end of the year they’re going make about $15 million. Wages here are only like, maybe 13 percent of the belt price, so it’s a small part of the belt price.
What do you think about the climate strike movement?
We do mining – we supply stuff for the mining industry. But at the end of the day, you can see that it’s slowly killing the planet, so there has to be changes. How it’s all going to work, I don’t know, but you look back 10 years ago, people were allowed to smoke everywhere and no-one thought the car industry was going to disappear. So it’s all going to turn around in the end.