A mass meeting of workers, outside the Port Melbourne Boeing plant, voted to go back to work today after nearly three weeks on strike. As reported previously, Boeing management had provoked this dispute after the unfair dismissal of a worker.
In a nut shell, Boeing sacked the worker, Allan Bloom, without having gone through the agreed dispute settlement procedure. The company alleged that Bloom had “irregular” time keeping records, but Bloom and the rest of the workforce say that the time keeping system is fraught with problems and that they are using these allegations in order to drive the union out of the plant.
After efforts to resolve the dispute amicably failed, about 700 workers walked off the job on April 9 and set up a picket line outside the plant. This in effect crippled the company with Boeing claiming that they were losing in excess of $1.3 million per day!
The company responded to the picket line by instigating legal action against the AMWU (Australian Manufacturing Workers Union) and individual workers. They complemented the legal action with a campaign of intimidation in an attempt to break the resolve of the workers.
Strikers were inundated with phone calls and letters telling them to return to work or suffer the consequences. These consequences included liability for part of the millions of dollars in losses the company was making. Throughout the course of the dispute the workers bravely defied orders by both the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) and the Federal Court to return to work. This frustrated the company to no end!
The biggest positive to come from this dispute was the resolve that the workers showed. Despite the threat of legal action hanging over their heads, only a handful of the 700 workers scabbed and crossed the picket line. For every day of the nearly three week long dispute the workers broke the law by ‘striking illegally’ and maintaining the pickets.
Activists from Union Solidarity, who gave vital support to the workers during the dispute, also stood strong in the face of legal action. Union Solidarity coordinator Dave Kerin was served with an order by the Workplace Ombudsman to produce documents relating to the dispute.
The order stated that if Kerin failed to comply he could face up to six months in prison! Union Solidarity has stated that they will refuse to cooperate with the Workplace Ombudsman and maintained their support right to the end of the dispute.
Role of the union leaders
These actions were in total contrast to the role played by the AMWU leaders. It seems that the only people associated with this dispute, that didn’t break the law, were these ‘leaders’!
Unlike the workers who refused to accept the bosses laws, the union leaders pledged on many occasions to both the AIRC and the Federal Court that they were not encouraging the workers to strike illegally. They complied with the orders of the AIRC and the Federal Court and didn’t attend the picket lines.
Some people may argue that this was just a clever tactic in order to avoid legal action but if this were true much more could have been done to support the picket. For the most part it was left up to the under resourced Union Solidarity to organise rosters and all of the picket infrastructure. The AMWU were not attempting to build the strike behind the scenes in fact they seemed keen to have the dispute resolved quickly within the confines of the law.
One of the first times that the union leaders attended the picket was today. Not only were the workers graced with the presence of AMWU National President Julius Rowe and State Secretary Steve Dargavel, but they were also privileged with perhaps two of the worst speeches in the history of the union movement!
It was left up to others in the meeting congratulate the workers for their brave stand and mention the fact that they had pushed the laws further than any other group of workers in recent years. These workers showed their appreciation for the hard work of Union Solidarity, and in particular Dave Kerin, by donating the remainder of their fighting fund to Union Solidarity so that they could continue to support workers in other disputes.
The final agreement to resolve the dispute was accepted unanimously by all those present. It included a fast tracked process where an appointed Commissioner would hear the case of the unfair dismissal of Allan Bloom. If the Commissioner rules in favour of Bloom he will have the option of either reinstatement or redundancy.
The company has also agreed to withdraw from all legal proceedings against the union and all individual employees. In effect this is a partial victory but it can be said the Boeing bosses have received a bloody nose during this fight.
It should not be understated that these workers took on a big greedy multinational company who had plans to crush the union. They came out of this fight relatively unscathed, while Boeing has lost in excess of $24 million dollars! They can walk into work tomorrow with their heads held high and with the strength of their union in tact. If anything, they have been strengthened by this struggle.
The lesson from this dispute is that even more could have been won if the union leaders had of been prepared to take a stand. Instead of hiding under the cover of Union Solidarity the union leaders themselves should be leading disputes, even if this means breaking unjust laws. This is their job. If a more solid leadership had been present in this dispute it is totally possible that a full victory could have been won.
This dispute also proves that most of the Work Choices legislation that John Howard introduced is still in place. It shows that unlike what the union leaders told us last year, electing a Labor government will not solve our problems. It is clear that the fight against unjust IR laws needs to be continued. If the union leaders were serious about continuing this fight this dispute could have been used as an example.
At Boeing there where 700 workers on strike over the unfair dismissal of a worker, all were breaking the law in defiance of an employer attempting to drive the union out of the workplace. If the AMWU leaders had led from the front and called on the entire movement to mobilise around this dispute it could have been more effective in putting pressure on Rudd to deliver decent laws than a thousand TV commercials. Unfortunately this was a missed opportunity.
It would have served every union leader well to attend the Boeing picket line and learn a few tips from the striking workers. They showed that there is determination to fight against bullying bosses and unjust IR laws whether they are Howard’s or Rudd’s.
This dispute has proved what the Socialist Party has been saying for some time; that it is not the workers who do not want to fight but the union leaders. The crisis of our movement is in the leadership and our task is to rebuild the movement with leaders who show the same determination as the Boeing workers.