The same company locked out workers at Joy Mining Machinery in Moss Vale, south of Sydney, for several months in 2000 in an attempt to break the unions there. Workers at that plant eventually won a collective agreement.
After the unionists had carried out an overtime ban for several weeks in their fight for a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA), P & H locked them out on November 14. This reporter was part of a December 6 reporting team that visited the picket line and a union picnic in nearby Singleton.
The P & H workshops at Mt. Thorley are located in an industrial area in the heart of the southern Hunter Valley coalfields. The 60 workers on the picket there are almost all tradespeoplemainly boilermakerswho assemble and maintain massive draglines used in open cut coal mining, and also make huge coal mining buckets and coal truck trays. The majority of pickets are members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), with a handful in the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). A few miles away at the Bulga companys open cut mine, six of the 12 P & H workers who maintain company-made equipment there are also locked out and are keeping up a protest picket.
Phil Mitchison and other workers we met at the picnic described how the company had tried to intimidate union members leading up to the lockout. The bosses had assembled all the workers into one of the rooms at the workshops, he said, and put a padlock on the door before taking them out one at a time to ask if they were prepared to work overtime and end other union action. The unionists were locked out one-by-one as they refused to accept company demands.
Mitchison explained that P & H is trying to introduce nonunion individual contracts, with wage raises tied to profits through company-imposed key performance indicators. The company terminated negotiations over the EBA, he said, by declaring that they had made a final offer. After workers rejected this proposal 57-10 in a postal ballot, the company declared that this was their final offer anyway, and locked out the workforce.
Steve Unicombe, a boilermaker with eight years at the company, was part of a two-person skeleton crew at the picket line during the union picnic. He explained that they had just returned from a speaking tour to several plants in Bathurst and Orange, west of Sydney.
The key issue in their fightthe company drive for individual contracts and no unionhad struck a chord among the workers they had met, Unicombe said: Everywhere we went workers had had their own fight. They learned that AMWU members at the Electrolux washing machine plant in Orange, for example, have so far been able to block a drive by the company to decertify the union among the 1,000-strong workforce there. Workers at Rail Infrastructure and EDI Rail had also fought to renew collective agreements and block company attempts to impose individual contracts, he said.
At the picnic, Shane Ratcliffe told us he had just returned from a two-day visit to Sydney with other P & H workers where they had spoken at more than a dozen metal shops and construction sites. It affects everyone, he said, describing the good hearing they received when they explained the issues in the fight.
Workers at Rheem, a waterheater manufacturing plant in Sydney, for instance, voted for a A$5 levy (A$1 = US$.74) to support the P & H workers. Rheem locked out workers there several times earlier this year in the course of a fight over a new EBA at the plant.
Ratcliffe described how one company, Heatcraft, had refused entry to the locked-out workers, though the union official who was accompanying them, who has legal right of entry, was allowed to go into the plant. He said about a third of the workers had assembled outside during their lunch break and we spoke to them through the fence.
Speaking teams have also gone down to Newcastle, and Mitchison said he was going to be part of another team to more workplaces in Sydney the coming Monday.
A couple of days before the picnic two bus loads of CFMEU and AMWU members from the construction divisions of those unions drove up from Sydney to visit the picket linewith a check for A$19,000, and about A$1,000 worth of meat for a big barbeque. They marched up and down the road between the picket shack and the company offices at the workshops, waving union flags and chanting union slogans.
Local support is also strong. A sign in the picket shack states groceries were donated by the Singleton Baptist church. A steady stream of coal miners and other workers are visiting the picket line, and the local paper, the Singleton Argus, is giving favorable coverage to the union fight. The wives and other family members of the locked-out workers are also pitching in to help the picket, from circulating petitions to contacting the media .
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