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  Issue No 52 Official Organ of LaborNet 05 May 2000  




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Laying It On the Line

By Rowan Cahill

A complex international legal web underpins a long-running South Coast picket.


Holding the Line

The Joy Manufacturing Company (Joy) is headquartered on the industrial outskirts of the semi-rural town of Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands of NSW. It is a pleasant industrial area, surrounded by trees colouring in Autumn hues, towering pines, and rural pasture land.

Joy produces mining equipment and has 377 full time employees in Australia, with branches in Northern NSW and Queensland. It is part of the American holding company Harnischfeger Industries Inc., with global interests in the mining, pulp, and paper making industries.

Harnischfeger Industries Inc. currently operates under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This section of the US Bankruptcy Code allows a debtor to continue operations so long as it reorganises, restructures, and cuts operating costs. Since 1998 the company has been involved in what it terms "aggressive" and permanent global downsizing, cost cutting, and "headcount reduction".

Outside the Moss Vale engineering works there is five week old picket line: angry workers exercise considerable restraint; there are trade union slogans on makeshift signs and banners, union flags, and two clusters of tents complete with kitchen, toilet, and sleeping facilities.

Strictly speaking it is not a picket line. It began that way at the end of March, the line forming as enterprise bargaining processes broke down.

In the face of strong worker resolve and considerable community support, management turned the dispute into a lock-out (ending July 13), affecting some 70 workshop and store workers, and leaving the company's operation in the hands of supervisory and management personnel.

The line held, so a fortnight ago management secured an injunction against the unionists, members of the AMWU, the AWU, and the CEPU, preventing them from blockading the site.

Trouble at Joy had been brewing for months. During 1999 new management came in; there were redundancies without prior warning and high profile unionists with EBA negotiating skills were part of the non-voluntary cull.

During later enterprise bargaining, management sought the negotiation of four agreements in place of one, a move unionists saw as an attempt to erode worker unity and bargaining power. EBAs on offer to the workers were deemed unsatisfactory, coming with strings attached; there were rolling stoppages, and a picket line was formed, and so on to lock-out.

The locked-out workers are a mixture of young and old men, all of them locals, many with dependent families. Emotionally and financially the lock-out has hit them hard. They are now surviving on anorexic budgets, personal savings, the contributions of family and friends, and credit.

In spite of this the mood on the line is buoyant. Families visit whenever possible; union organisers are present. There is wide community support with local businesses donating supplies; others who turn their backs on pre-lockout 'good customers' are outed on encampment signs. There has been significant financial and moral support from the wider union movement.

Following the picket line injunction, volunteers with trade union principles came forward to fill the breech, calling themselves "Concerned Citizens". On Thursday 27 April these, including university students who had made the trek from Wollongong, bore the brunt of heavy handed police rough house when 16 uniformed officers and 8 police vehicles arrived to help a truck enter and leave the Joy works. Plain clothes personnel were also present, handcuffs obvious in their jeans.

The orchestrated escort and the accompanying police violence in clearing the picket reflected the involvement of city based police, the local constabulary having been cooperative with the workers.

Management has treated its locked out employees in a manner many feel is intimidating. There is a new high security presence around the work site; picketers have been video-taped by management; company legal advisers have been conspicuously visible.

Amongst the workers there is growing concern that the lock-out may have little to do with enterprise bargaining. They believe Joy management is intent on further downsizing and restructuring, given the depressed state of the Southern Mining District with its pit closures and cut backs, and the American parent company's financial problems and aggressive global downsizing.

The real agenda, the workers believe, is the break up of the Moss Vale operation, the shedding of the locked-out workforce, and the cut down of entitlements.

Since the injunction, the regular movement of police escorted trucks hauling workshop equipment from the site has fuelled this belief.

It is night as I write. A passing freight train on the main southern line adjacent to the picket encampment sounds its horn in solidarity, as they all tend to do; the blast reverberates through the cold Autumn night. The heartening fire in the 44 gallon drum that serves as heater and communal centre is fed a few logs; the dishes from dinner are cleaned and put away in the kitchen tent.

Cows call in the distance. Mist rises from nearby wetlands and drifts across the paddocks. The night rostered picketers variously prepare to bed down; they think of family warmth, providing for loved ones, no income, and the uncertain future.

But they also think of the struggle; for these are unionists, and much is at stake. Whatever else the Joy management set out to do, it has ironically reinforced the union spirit in these rural backblocks.

Rowan Cahill is an activist historian.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 52 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: War Stories from the Shakey Isles
After being flat-earthed, New Zealand unions are making a comeback under a new progressive government. Darien Fenton is at the forefront of the resurgence.
*  Unions: Laying It On the Line
A complex international legal web underpins a long-running South Coast picket.
*  International: Alive and Kicking
Those representing right wing political forces and strategists for multi-national corporations would be disappointed by the success of the recently concluded Congress of the WFTU in Delhi.
*  Economics: Fair Trade not Free Trade
The successful MAI and Seattle campaigns have sparked a new debate about the role of the World Trade Organization.
*  History: The Manchester Movement
Manchester, in Asa Briggs memorable phrase, was the shock city of the early nineteenth century, a small and obscure market town that in a matter of a few years had become a huge city.
*  Satire: Passing the Buck
Government report tells bosses how to lie and pass the buck: Reith blames Kemp
*  Review: A Book to Set the Left Right
The Australian Finacial Review's Stephen Long gives his verdict on 'Tales from the new Shop Floor'.

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