The Guardian May 8, 2002

Car workers' victory

by Bob Briton

Victory has crowned the strike struggle by workers and their union  the 
AMWU  after an eventful twelve day strike at the Adelaide-based exhaust 
system manufacturer, Walker Australia.

The parent company Tenneco agreed last week to take out a $4 million bank 
guarantee to cover all the long service leave entitlements of its workers 
until 2004 when the current EBA expires. The lack of adequate security for 
the entitlements due to workers was the major sticking point in the dispute 
that had closed down much of the country's car industry, including vehicle 
production at Holden, Ford and Toyota.

Workers are surprised at Tenneco's choice of ways out of the dispute, given 
that it will cost more than the scheme that the union wanted put in place. 
The bank guarantee will build from $2 million this year, to $3 million by 
July 2003 and the full $4 million by January 1, 2004.

The AMWU's proposal involved a company contribution of 1.5 percent of 
salary being paid into a trust fund. So far, this would only have cost 
around $60,000.

Tenneco had argued that it had no responsibility to contribute to a fund at 
all, despite signing an EBA with such a commitment last November.

The company maintained that the Federal Government's rejigged General 
Employee Entitlements and Redundancy scheme (GEER) let it off the hook.

GEER is an inadequate, taxpayer funded scheme, a "safety net" that some 
employers favour because it is a taxpayer funded guarantee.

Ansett workers could tell you all about it. They have been short-changed an 
estimated $187 million since the company collapsed last September.

Latest Government statistics show that, because payouts are capped under 
the Federal Government's scheme, workers stand to lose an average of 29 
percent of amounts due to them. This is the scheme Tenneco wanted to foist 
on its workers.

The Labor Party's workplace relations spokesman Robert McClelland has 
refloated the idea of a national insurance plan under which the Government 
and larger employers would share the cost of securing entitlements.

This avoids the AMWU's "Manusafe" concept that requires employers to put 
aside into a specific fund, amounts to cover the entitlements of their 
employees. Why should taxpayers have to bail out companies who refuse to 
take responsibility for their workforce?

AMWU Federal Secretary Doug Cameron has declared that the union will press 
ahead with the campaign to secure 100 percent of manufacturing workers' 
entitlements, whether by bank guarantee, an insurance bond as in the case 
of Tristar last year or a scheme like Manusafe.

The Walker's dispute showed that employers are prepared to bring out the 
big guns to avoid their commitments. Walker Australia launched a damages 
claim of $100,000 against the AMWU and $20,000 against union organiser Tim 
Murray. These claims were dropped as part of the settlement of the dispute.

Local car makers also took a confrontationist position during the dispute. 
Most notable was the Adelaide-based Holdens. It also threatened court 
action for damages against the union.

Company spokesperson Jason Laird has done his best to perpetuate an 
atmosphere of crisis and uncertainty by claiming that the transnational is 
reviewing its component supply arrangements. Overseas sources have been 
mentioned showing that the company is prepared to abandon its "Made in 
Australia" image.

Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott also launched verbal 
incendiaries against the union. He used such terms as "treachery" and 
"bloody mindedness". Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer also stuck 
his nose into the dispute, criticising the South Australian Government for 
its alleged "timidity" in dealing with the issue.

Perhaps Australia's warmongering Foreign Minister would like to bring out 
the troops or set up death-squads as operate in Colombia to assassinate 
trade union activists.

The media also played its usual anti-trade union role. AMWU organiser Tim 
Murray was personally attacked for his strong role in the dispute. The 
Australian carried a story about Tim on its front page which ran a piece of 
gossip from Walker's human resources man, Phillip McMahon.

The company spokesman told the Federal Court that the AMWU organiser swears 
like a navvy and allegedly said that "he didn't give a .... if the industry 
closed down".

Tim replied that the statement attributed to him was inaccurate and very 
unlikely, given that his own younger brother works at Mitsubishi and 
depends on the job for his livelihood. At that time Tim was facing a 
damages claim of $20,000 in the Federal Court and a possible gaol sentence.

Another example of the anti-worker virulence of the media is the statement 
that the crew of the CSL "Yarra" were in a state of "mutiny".

Pro-boss commentators are more and more spreading the idea that workers 
taking action to protect their conditions and rights are "criminals" and 
that their actions in support of their entitlements are not in the 
"national interest".

While the victory at Walker's should be celebrated, the continuing struggle 
for entitlements and other justified demands will become more intense.

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