How to struggle for more secure work

The Baiada strike: lessons in the struggle for more secure work by Chris White

I invite analysis of the NUW win for more secure work for low-paid migrant workers in the Baiada Victorian chicken factory.
Such an analysis reveals signposts for strategic planning for union and left activists with workers to win against insecure work. here are 4.

1. The union protected strike action for enterprise bargaining under our ‘Fair’ Work Act (FWA) regime is only for an enterprise agreement for claims as in this dispute, including changing insecure employment contracts to more secure contracts.

Even with support for strike action that is lawful, effective picketing is declared unlawful. Consequently,

right to strike

right to strike

2. Community assemblies with experienced leadership for 24 hour blockading was the winning strategy.

Building solidarity, repelling employer provocations, a media response and organising support from union networks, and left groups was necessary.

Importantly, gaining local and broad community support, targeting retailers, action by consumers and from animal liberation, all contributed to social unionism backing the strike and community assembly.
Update: Please read this interview with Dave Kerin on how to organise Community Assemblies

3. The NUW union analysed the Baiada Company in the chicken industry duopoly. This was important in defeating the company.

Key political Liberals played a part.

4. The class unionism debate. At the conclusion, I argue for legislative changes

I add that what follows is only a partial contribution – with much more able to be supplied by those involved. More sources are to be researched.

1. The National Union of Workers NUW sent information to solidarity networks for the start of the Baiada Poultry workers strike Wednesday 9th November 2011.

‘Workers at Baiada Poultry will take protected industrial action in their campaign for secure and permanent jobs. The previous agreement expired on July 31 2011 and after months of getting nowhere in good faith bargaining talks for a new agreement, as a last resort, the NUW process had the protected action ballot mailed out on the 18th of October with the ballot closed November 2.
 70% of the workers voted and 100% of those support indefinite strike action that will begin at 6pm, 9 November in Pipe Road, Laverton.

NUW delegate Dragi Surbevski said, “We have voted to take strike action. We will be doing this because we want to make sure that when we work at Baiada, we all get treated with respect.

The company is refusing to convert casual workers to permanent employment. We work side by side with contractors who don’t even get pay slips let alone the minimum wage or superannuation. We want to make sure that every worker has access to permanent and secure work, the type of work that allows us to pay off a mortgage and raise a family.”

Baiada is notorious for employing sham contracting, cash paid workers, over casualisation and piece rates in order to undermine the job security of workers. 
Baiada has rejected the claims, but signed statements by former and current workers allege cash-in-hand workers are paid as little as $8 an hour.

Worker Phuoc Dang, who has worked at Baiada for 11 years, yesterday said there had been a large increase in temporary workers, particularly after about 50 staff were made redundant in the middle of the year. ”They are often overseas students, refugee or newly arrived people.”

Ms Dang, a leading hand, said she had been harassed and was repeatedly asked to resign from the NUW. Abdul Adem, who has worked at Baiada for eight years, also said he had been harassed and racially abused.

The Age report:

Baiada is a company that murders workers in order to maximise profits.

Sorel Singh was not wearing his normal protective clothing on the evening in August 2010 he was called back to do more cleaning at Baiada. Singh, 34, a contractor, had to spray down a machine known as a chain line, one that can dispatch birds at the astonishing rate of 183 a minute, or more than 10,000 an hour. On this night, as the processing line belted past at high speed, Singh’s jacket snagged, and he was dragged with tremendous velocity into the processing machine and killed instantly decapitated.

Not only did workers have to clean up Sorel’s remains, they were forced to work overtime in order to make up for the time lost in cleaning. The Worksafe Victoria report confirmed that Baiada had contravened the Health and Safety Occupation Act. Singh is a casualty of a management that in its race to cut costs, has forced workers to clean machinery running at full capacity.’

The OHS campaign was central.
The NUW had been long campaigning. ‘SERIOUS health and safety issues have been raised at a major supplier of chickens, with graphic images showing cockroaches, maggots and the inappropriate storage of raw chickens inside a large Victorian processing plant.’ Read more:

Earlier OHS issues were endemic with the company in denial fighting expensive legal battles. “These are serious workplace incidents …there are growing concerns about what is happening in the tightly controlled poultry processing industry. It’s an industry where it’s in one end and out the other – even the sheds that house chickens are called ‘tunnels’.
‘The trouble was and is that there is a confined space,’ another worker said.’Because of the confined space it is not easy for everything. Look at the machinery and equipment, the mobile power plants that are there – they are too many, and workers are too many and stock is too many.This has led to a lot of injuries, a lot of trouble.’

Singh, who was working under contract to a cleaning company, is not the only worker to die at Baiada. In 2005, truck driver Mario Azzapardi, who was also a contractor, was crushed to death by a steel crate of live chickens, dropped on him by an unlicensed forklift driver. Baiada was found guilty of failing to provide a safe workplace and fined $100,000 by the County Court in 2009.

In what is emerging as a crucial test of the use of subcontractors and labour hire firms, Baiada is challenging whether it is responsible for the lives of the workers who are contracted to work on its sites. Appealing its conviction in the High Court last week, counsel for Baiada said the trial jury should have been told that Baiada was ‘entitled to rely on expert and experienced independent contractors’ to take care of safety issues.

Baiada’s argument infuriates the NUW. It describes arrangements in which workers such as Singh and Azzapardi, who follow Baiada’s instructions but are employed by someone else, as ‘sham contracting’.

Workers are demanding an end to unethical and unlawful employment practices in the poultry industry. NUW’

Australia’s ‘Fair’ Work Act makes most strikes unlawful, except for a narrow legal right to strike for protected action for an enterprise bargaining agreement after compliance with excessive process requirements and a ballot. (Put in right to strike in this blog for detailed articles).

From this account so far unionists can start to discuss steps to implement your strategy for more secure work.

In your enterprise bargaining, research the protected action FWA provisions and educate members strengthening the organising and follow the bargaining processes (references available on this blog). Develop OHS prevention in your campaign. In organising, membership driven action for the claims is important, and how to bargain, reporting back for members’ decisions.

Of the 430 Baiada workers, 244 workers are directly employed with also a large number of workers employed as cash-in-hand, contract and labour-hire workers with some paid below the minimum wage. The NUW log of claims includes the regulation of contracting on site, access to direct employment for workers and site rates of pay. The company wants to take away meaningful protections of minimum site rates and conversion to permanent employment.

Bargaining meetings continued during the 17day strike. ‘Talks are expected to resume between the NUW and Baiada Poultry, while striking workers maintain the picket line at a Melbourne site that has stopped chicken deliveries to Coles and Woolworths supermarkets and major fast food outlets.’

Earlier I posted on this strike

2. The community assembly.
Union experience is that despite protected action, effective picketing to enforce the lawful strike unbelievably is not protected under ancient master/servant common law of tort.

The NUW and unions often experience difficulties with a picket that stands by watching the employer bus in scabs and move products in and out. Effective picketing for worker power to back up bargaining requires 24 hour blockading of the site.

Mass community assemblies have won in the past such as the MUA Here to Stay win. Organising solidarity networks of unionists, with ACTU and VTHC backing, ALP and Greens politicians, left socialist groups, Melbourne Solidarity, Melbourne Occupy and the local community groups meant effective community assemblies. Workers and supporters ensured ‘nothing, in/nothing out’.

Leadership from veteran unionist Dave Kerin and Melbourne Solidarity had infrastructure for food, shelter, meetings, community solidarity rallies, and the tactical skills of maintaining solidarity and courage against company provocations. Solidarity strengthens the unionists’ bargaining.

‘Worker hurt on the picket line.
On Wednesday, workers and supporters blocked access to any incoming trucks, chanting into the early hours of the morning, “Nothing in, nothing out”. Early Thursday morning, a security guard attempted to drive his car through the picket line, breaking one poultry worker’s arm. It was later revealed that Baida management told him to ram the workers and that the company would pay for any damage to his car. NUW’ The corporate media reported predictably with hysteria. ‘Violent Striker Outbreak at Chicken Plant’

Friday night’s ABC Late Night Live ran with the flare-up. Liberal IR shadow Abetz blamed the Gillard government’s FWA! Media bias was extreme, e.g. ‘Union heavies’ evil game of chicken at Baiada Poultry, whose Laverton North factory is in Julia Gillard’s electorate.’ Miranda Devine was even worse than these headlines in The Sunday Telegraph November 13, 2011.

Rather than negotiate, Baiada CEO had their corporate lawyers get a common law injunction to stop the union picket.

‘The Victorian Supreme Court on Friday banned Moase and the NUW from blocking, or encouraging union members to block, the movement of vehicles or people in or out of the Laverton Plant at the centre of the industrial action. In seeking the injunction against Moase and the NUW, Baiada told Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth that the picket line had prevented $1 million worth of perishable produce from leaving the premises in the first 48 hours of the industrial action.’ Read more here

‘Police violence, worker hurt, but scabs kept out. When police acted to enforce the injunction at 11pm on Friday evening, the community assembly held firm repelling police attempts to bus in scabs, but one worker was taken away by ambulance after his legs were injured. From Green Left Weekly Saturday, November 12, 2011

Late on the evening of Friday November 11, the picket of the main gate of the Baiada chicken factory was brutally attacked by the Victorian Police. The police attempted to break the picket and bring in two vans of scab labor by violently trampling and beating blockading workers and supporters. Police punched one of the poultry workers in the face and inflicted serious injuries, he was taken to hospital. But the police were pushed back, a crucial victory for the poultry workers and their struggle.

Some people Baiada had recruited to scab refused to cross the picket line and signed up to join the NUW. …Around 150 workers and supporters chanted “No more $10, no more cash in hand”, “No more bullying” and “No racism”. Some migrant workers who spoke little English started up a chant that echoed through the crowd “We Want Fair”.

‘Today Adelaide Baiada workers refused to unload chickens in solidarity with the Melbourne strikers. This is a fantastic step forward. Baiada can be beaten maintaining the Laverton picket line, by spreading the fight to other Baiada factories and getting solidarity from other workers and unions to increase the pressure on Baiada management.’

Striking process workers resist police attacks 15 November 2011

Listen to Radio 3CR Stick Together report

A report on riot police attacks

Chicken dispute continues

Later, the strike is putting on the pressure.

‘Chicken supplies to Coles supermarkets and other outlets are under threat after a major supplier suspended its contracts with Victorian farmers in response to a weeklong strike. Baiada Poultry’s Laverton North site has been subject to a strike and picket line since last Wednesday as workers pushed for improved conditions and job security. Baiada has tried to maintain supply by sending chickens to its Adelaide plant or to rival processors in Melbourne.

But the continuing blockade – which the company has tried to have stopped in the Supreme Court – is now causing major problems for Baiada. …The delivery contracts of about 70 Victorian farmers had been suspended, a move that affects the vast bulk of its supply in Victoria. Baiada owns brands Steggles and Lilydale chicken.…National Union of Workers state secretary Tim Kennedy said there had been little progress in talks. ”The company seems more focused on hurting its workers, now hurting its farmers and the customers at Coles.”

The company 21 November 2011 seeks damages rather than an agreement.

‘The NUW, its national secretary Charlie Donnelly and organiser Godfrey Moase are facing a $1.7 damages claim from poultry producer Baiada, after the company lodged new documents in the Victorian Supreme Court today.
The major component of its claimed losses are $930,000 of “chilled chicken products” it has been unable to deliver because of the picket.’

Discuss: In your protected action, you need legal advice on common law injuctions against picketing. I have criticised our FWA system that allows a lawful strike but not a lawful picket. This major anti-union employer weapon is to defeat the lawful strike, where the employer rather than negotiating is unhindered for scabs or trucks in/out and without the union’s right to strike, the force of production stopped.

Community support was organised. NUW: What you can do.
‘Baiada workers need support from unions and the community.
Join the 24 hour picket line – bring a delegation from your workplace to show your support. Pass a resolution at your union branch meeting supporting the striking NUW workers. Take a collection for Baiada chicken workers.

Donations to the Workers Solidarity Network Baiada strike fund would be greatly appreciated.’

Community support was organized for other unionists to attend the community assemblies. ACTU Ged Kearney attended rallies and campaigned as did VTHC brian Boyd.

Occupy Melbourne became involved and targeted Coles/Woolworths.

As 70% of Baiada workers are Vietnamese, ‘Vietnamese Western suburbs community leader Tram Nguyen has worked closely with the National Union of Workers on our campaign to help Baiada Workers. Tram is employed as a Vietnamese multicultural aide at Sunshine Primary School and has also worked closely with the Brimbank Council. Community groups including the International Student Legal Advice Clinic (ISLAC) and the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition are also partnering with the NUW to provide support for poultry workers including those employed by Baiada.’

As well, Baiada workers were African, Indian and continental European and a number of international students – their communities rallied.

Community unionism had an online campaign Give a Pluck “better jobs 4 better chicken” where people signed to support the campaigns.

N.U.W. Launches Important Poultry Industry Discussion Paper Tuesday 27 March 2012

Animal Liberation was organising.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission made it clear its concern with the concentration of power in the hands of Baiada and Ingham. The ACCC took Federal Court action against Baiada Poultry for misleading the community over their animal welfare standards. Baiada is also among processors targeted by the ACCC in a lawsuit that alleges the widespread use of the term ”free to roam” in the industry is misleading when in fact the chickens live in an area equivalent to an A4 piece of paper.’

Supermarket giant Coles launched a high-level independent probe into the employment practices of poultry giant Baiada following a string of alleged breaches of the retailer’s ethical sourcing policy at chicken plants across Australia.

An interesting report here

Finally, victory. Baiada workers celebrate victory Saturday, November 26, 2011. After 13 days of an around-the-clock picket line, striking chicken workers have won significant restrictions on the use of contract and cash-in-hand labour, with Baiada agreeing to pay temporary workers the same rates as permanent staff.

right to strike

right to strike

Rare victory for workers whose dignity was cut to the bone

first join a union first join a union[/caption]“>

Workers win

At a victory celebration, National Union of Workers (NUW) organiser, Godfrey Moase, said:

“Let’s hope that this is the start of something for the labor movement in this country, because we desperately need to move forward if we’re to keep up any kind of progress like this, because one thing’s for sure, if that’s going to happen, we can’t stay where we are now.”

NUW delegate Abdul Rahman told the supporters that the dispute had “changed the culture at Baiada. Workers regard themselves differently” because they had stood up to the company.
Rahman said the combined effort of workers, the community and the unions had brought about the victory. He hoped the strong show of support for job security shown at Baiada would benefit the wider Australian community.

Moase said that since returning to work, the workers had a meeting with management in the lunchroom. The workers spontaneously broke into the chant: “The workers united, shall never be defeated.”
After negotiations, the company agreed to a new enterprise bargaining agreement that improves pay and conditions.

Earlier in the dispute, management said it would agree to no more than a 3% pay increase for permanent staff and refused to discuss pay and conditions with casual contract staff.

Under Baiada’s casual contracting arrangements, some workers were paid as little as $8 an hour.
Earlier on, management also tried to keep delivery drivers — who have not seen a pay rise in five years — out of the bargaining process.
The new agreement gives factory staff a 8% pay rise over two years and says contract or casual labour will be paid no less than permanent employees.

Delivery drivers are covered by the agreement. The injury pay rate is now 100% of regular pay, rather than the 80% Baiada management wanted.

Elected union delegates at the Baiada factory can undertake 200 hours of paid union training a year. Delegates will also be allowed to help organise other chicken processing plants without loss of pay.

After the victory, Victorian NUW state secretary Tim Kennedy thanked the workers, unionists, political activists and community groups who had supported the Baiada workers’ picket. He said the result wouldn’t have been possible without the combined effort.

He made a point to thank long-time trade union activist Dave Kerin for his organising role on the picket line.
The Baiada dispute is proof of several things. It shows class struggle unionism, rather than playing by the rules of bosses, bureaucrats and Fair Work Australia, is the way to win.’

I posted the following:
WSN  Right To Strike flyler - front page - FINAL

A dispute report here


GLW workers win

NUW: Fight against casualisation

Working class defiance inspires confidence in struggle

4. Unions research the company for information to workers and the community. Baiada Company

‘Baiada Poultry…is still owned by the extended Baiada family, Simon and John Camilleri, grand children of Celestino and Giovanna Baiada. The Baiada family’s wealth was estimated at $495 million by BRW Magazine in June 2011. Baiada Poultry is Australia’s leading poultry company and controls approximately 35% of the market and had revenue in 2009-2010 totalling $1,195 million, which will have significantly increase in 2011 after the company completed a significant takeover of a major competitor Bartter. Baiada are a private company and the directors and owners are very secretive about their financial position. Annual profit figures and executive pay details are not available. Simon Camilleri and Jean Mercieca are listed as the current Directors of Baiada Poultry.

Baiada is the primary poultry provider for Coles supermarkets. Baiada’s other major customers include Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, Nandos, KFC and Red Rooster. The company has processing operations in every Australian mainland state so a lock out at Laverton may not necessarily disrupt supply of chickens to Coles but would mean the company would have to transport poultry from interstate to service their Victorian supermarkets as well as the company’s other customers. Baiada workers in WA, SA and Victoria are represented by the NUW while workers in NSW and QLD are represented by the AMEIU.

‘They’re major Australian-owned food companies, they’re family owned and it’s very hard to get any transparency on actually how they operate,’ NUW Victorian secretary Tim Kennedy said.

At the other end of the line, farmers who grow the chickens say their profit margins are under huge pressure because Australia’s supermarket giants, Coles and Woolworths, are making ”unsustainable” demands for ever lower prices.
Ugly as it sounds, it’s hard not to think that Sorel Singh’s death is the price paid to ensure that Australians can have – as they do – an apparently endless supply of cheap chicken.
…Small, independent and mostly family-run agricultural farms have gradually been acquired and drawn into a vertically integrated near-duopoly in which processors exercise tight control over every aspect of a chicken, from hatching to dispatching.
The Saturday Age estimates Baiada and Ingham, which control more than 70 per cent of the industry, together reap more than $3 billion a year.’

For the big roosters at the top of the roost, life is good.

Ingham patriarch Bob Ingham has lived at the same address, a vast triangular block in Casula, west of Sydney, for 80 years. As suburbia closed in, Ingham gradually sold chunks to property developers, whittling down the estate from 150 hectares to eight – leaving plenty of room for a pool, a tennis court and lawns that seem to stretch forever.
Property records show it last changed hands in 2007, when one Ingham company sold it to another for a single dollar. It is just one of 49 blocks of land valued in total at $358 million, that the company mortgaged to ANZ Bank in 2009.

Across town in the heritage waterfront enclave of Hunters Hill is the somewhat smaller spread of Baiada chief John Camilleri. Like Ingham’s spread, Camilleri’s house is hard to value. He bought it for $1.25 million in 1999, but mortgaged it for $7 million just two years later.

While they live at opposite ends of town, Ingham and Camilleri share a passion for horses. Ingham is a stalwart of the track, racing thoroughbreds in the family’s all-cerise colours even after selling his Woodlands Stud operation to Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, for about $500 million in 2008.

Camilleri, who races and breeds horses under the Fairway Thoroughbreds banner, is on the board of the Australian Turf Club.
For those at the bottom of the industry’s pecking order, the meatworkers in the tycoons’ factories, life is very different.
Tension runs highest at Baiada, where workers complain of a culture of bullying, a lack of respect for the workforce and an increasing reliance on outside contractors, such as the cleaning company that employed Sorel Singh. Baiada has grown like Topsy since 2004, when it bought Eatmore Poultry from Melbourne’s Burd and Wroby families. Five years later, it snapped up its bigger competitor, Bartter, which owns one of Australia’s best-known chicken brands, Steggles.’

Baiada and corporate predation – directors in expensive homes and running racehorses.

Andrew Crook November 17, 2011 reported on Liberal party involvement. ‘A shadowy astroturf group led by two Liberal Party operatives has emerged to bend public opinion in the bitter Baiada Poultry workplace dispute.
A press release was distributed yesterday on behalf of a so-called “People Power Group” comprising “non-union” employees of the chicken processor, which is locked in a stand-off with its unionised workforce over wages and conditions. The NUW has erected a picket line around the company’s Laverton North plant, which has been shutdown since last Wednesday.

While it didn’t refer to any individual by name, the release spruiking a “peaceful” counter-protest at Julia Gillard’s Altona office included the mobile phone number and personal email address of one-time Liberal Higgins hopeful Jason Aldworth.

Yesterday afternoon, Aldworth arrived at the PM’s digs accompanied by former Maribyrnong Liberal candidate Hamish Jones, who was disendorsed in 2007 for branding then-state Labor transport minister Lynne Kosky a “bitch” and a “f-ckwit” on his personal blog.
The duo oversaw the delivery of “poster-sized” petition to the Prime Minister. About 25 protesters waved placards daubed with phrases like “I want to go to work”, which looked to have been cheaply produced at Officeworks.When they arrived they were confronted by NUW members, 220 of whom are on strike.

However, Crikey understands many “People Power” members were reluctant to protest and had to have their arm twisted by Aldworth to confront their fellow employees. Some are believed to be supervisors, Baiada contractors or disenfranchised ex-Meatworkers still smarting from a previous demarcation dispute with the NUW.

Victoria Police attacked the picket line on Friday night following a Supreme Court injunction preventing NUW “officials”, but not members of the community, from blocking access to the site. The dispute has attracted wall-to-wall media coverage with the Sunday Herald Sun devoting its front page to the clash.

Baiada was represented in court by HR Nicholls Society favourite Stuart Wood and Tanya Cirkovic, who did her articles at Kroger & Kroger in the late ’80s and worked with Peter Costello on the Dollar Sweets case.

Senior Liberals including Eric Abetz are believed to be keen to turn the dispute into a talismanic attack on Labor’s Fair Work legislation.

Aldworth  —  a former employee of Michael Kroger’s investment bank JT Campbell  —  was Liberal state vice-president and is currently a director of the controversial Civic Group, the lobbyists formed following his defection from CPR Communications alongside ex-John Pandazopoulos staffer Brett Miller and former ALP state secretary Andres Puig. He was slated to replace Costello in Higgins before Kelly O’Dwyer intervened.
Aldworth declined to be quoted on the record this morning, however Crikey understands that he being paid directly by Baiada management to engineer the anti-union message.
His offsider Jones has on several occasions employed the tactics on display yesterday.
In a now infamous 2003 DVD State of the Union, that documented the struggle for control of the Melbourne University Student Union, Jones is exposed rorting the club affiliation process to setup a front-group called “Free Beer” to mislead supporters of the popular More Beer to channel support to the ruling Liberal and Labor Right clique.
He was slated to run against Bill Shorten in Maribyrnong in 2007 but was disendorsed after he insulted Kosky on his blog Ranting and Rambling.

Aldworth’s employer, the Civic Group, was exposed last year when it emerged as the brains behind the “Alliance of Australian Retailers”, a Big Tobacco-funded front astroturf operation purporting to represent small business owners protesting the federal government’s plain packaging legislation.
Baiada is run by BRW Rich-Lister John Camilleri with his family boasting a total wealth of $495 million (up from $372 million last year).
A spokesperson for the company did not respond to requests for comment this morning.

NUW state secretary Tim Kennedy said that Baiada’s competitors were planning a fresh kill to keep chicken supplies moving and that he “hoped the company would come back with serious ideas to settle this dispute.”

Read here
Liberal Kroeger was involved
LIBERAL Party heavyweight Michael Kroger has questioned whether authorities should have done more to break a picket line at the Baiada Poultry factory in Laverton North.

Mr Kroger said he was concerned the disrespect for Victoria’s industrial relations laws could see businesses move elsewhere.
The businessman and solicitor said members of the National Union of Workers had defied a Supreme Court of Victoria order to end the ban, damaging the state’s reputation.
The dispute was resolved last month, with workers winning a 4 per cent pay rise and restrictions on the use of contract labour.

Mr Kroger was critical of Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay for failing to use the court order to smash the picket line after failing at the first attempt.
“Ken Lay has shown complete indifference and was derelict in his duty,” he said.
“It would be terrible if a company takes legal action against the State Government for failing to uphold the law.”

Update: Later, Kroeger and the Liberals convince the Victorian Liberal Government to pass draconian legislation to silence and halt community pickets, including support for strike action, and indeed many other civil actions and protests, environmental, anti-war, anti-Abbott etc.
The VTHC held a successful strike/mass community protest against these laws. The ALP opposition said they would be repealed.

Read my report here
We have to organise another struggle to get the Victorian Parliament to repeal these anti-democratic laws, and even with Premier Daniel Andrews in government community pressure has to be applied to the new Victorian Legislative Assembly with the balance of power held by right-wing independents.

Rights on site campaigns to abolish the ABCC

Rights on site campaigns to abolish the ABCC

4. The Class Unionism debate.
Here is one of my points on unions either as corporate/government unionism, community unionism or class unionism.


What now follows is one left debate. Anthony Main from the Socialist Party criticises a pamphlet by Allyson Hose from Socialist Alternative.

Join this debate about social unionism and class unionism.

Obviously other key players in this dispute interpret the following issues with differences. No-one has a correct line.

The pamphlet was headed ‘The Baiada poultry workers’ strike – How class struggle unionism can win’.
Read a copy here

‘Its goal is to highlight “important lessons that workers, rank and file unionists, socialists and activists need to learn from the Baiada workers’ victory in order to build back strong, combative unions that can challenge the priorities of Australian capitalism and win.”

Unfortunately this pamphlet falls well short of its stated aim. From the title you would hope that the work was a critique of the industrial strategy put in place by the leaders of the National Union of Workers (NUW). Instead it paints the union leaders as mere bystanders, which in the final analysis, covers over the conservative role that they played and continue to play in relation to this dispute.

Hose outlines the massive amounts of wealth accumulated by the owners of Baiada, contrasted with the poverty wages paid to the workers. The horrific health and safety conditions which these workers endure are also detailed.
She highlights the exploitative role played by management and the fact that the company has been responsible for the deaths of two workers. As ‘punishment’ the company received little more than a slap on the wrist from the courts. The strike was both in response to the conditions the workers faced and a result of a year long NUW recruitment campaign.
There is no doubt that the workers themselves were highly courageous and showed extraordinary determination. The Vietnamese women along with other migrant workers were among the most militant sections of the workforce. To leave it at this however tells only one side of the story.

No dispute can be correctly understood without an analysis of the class forces involved, the role of the rank and file workers and the role of the trade union bureaucracy. In Australia today the union bureaucracy is a privileged stratum which is tied closely to the ALP.

The NUW leadership were actively overseeing every stage of this dispute. Many important decisions were made by NUW officials, without properly consulting with the members or even the delegates! Hose chooses to ignore this fact.
The NUW are in fact a right-wing union aligned with some of the most corrupt elements in the ALP. As a result of their politics they went into this dispute without a discernable industrial strategy. This served to unnecessarily prolong the strike.

The weakness of their approach became apparent on the first day of the dispute when a senior NUW official present manoeuvred to allow 15 trucks to break the picket line.…
From the beginning of the picket the workers were blocking the gates and chanting “nothing in, nothing out”. The decision to let the 15 trucks out was undemocratically pushed through by the NUW official to the utter dismay of the bulk of the workers.…
This was a key turning point in the dispute and one that sparked discussion about the industrial strategy. Many of those workers who did stay on the picket berated the NUW official and forced the return of the ‘nothing in, nothing out’ tactic.…We explained the weaknesses of the NUW leaders’ approach and strove to convince the workers that they would have to fight for a strategy that was capable of winning.
…she seems impressed that a community BBQ was attended by the right-wing “ACTU president Ged Kearney, who spoke form the platform, along with several other prominent union officials.”

From reading this pamphlet it seems that Hose has reduced ‘class struggle unionism’ to the ‘community unionism’ model recently championed by the NUW leaders and a number of other conservative union leaderships.
The NUW’s recent adoption of the tactic of ‘community pickets’ resulted from lessons from the 2010-11 dispute at the Swift abattoir in Brooklyn, in Melbourne’s western suburbs. After numerous weeks on strike sitting out the front of the factory watching trucks and scabs enter and leave as they pleased, the workers had become extremely demoralised. The NUW leaders’ strategy of negotiating with management whilst production was moving along unabated was a clear failure. …

Real class struggle unionism is based on rank and file control, not bureaucratic manoeuvring. Genuine militancy flows from a world view that is anti-capitalist. It is one thing to point out the advantages of blockades and pickets but this in and of itself does not equate to a return of class struggle unionism.
…“Unfortunately many seem to think that the defensive strategy of ‘community unionism’ is the best that can be done and the main tactic we should base ourselves on.
“For the pro-ALP union leaders ‘community unionism’ means not bothering to mobilise union members to staff pickets, instead just relying on the ‘community’ (usually made up primarily of the hard Left). They think it is their role to decide how and when “solidarity and unity” is conducted. They refuse to challenge their own anti-worker laws in any meaningful way and politics is only to be discussed within the confines of the ALP. Anyone who dares talk politics or outline an alternative strategy is labelled ‘divisive’….
…while the ‘nothing in, nothing out’ policy was a positive aspect of this dispute, taken up with enthusiasm by the most militant sections of the workforce, it was not comprehensive. From the early stages of the strike it became apparent that the company had set up production at other sites in order to undermine the impact of the picket. While the NUW leaders were happy to block the gates of the main factory in which production had halted, they were reluctant to expand the picketing to the alternative sites where production and distribution was taking place.
In fact on at least four occasions they called off planned ‘community pickets’ of the other sites…
…the NUW leaders told the workers that an agreement had been reached with management (4% per year for 2 years).
…While the final agreement did win some improvements on the rights of casuals to be made permanent, it did not seek to seriously protect the jobs of those who were involved in the picket. This was a major omission and one that was not openly discussed with the workers.

Not surprisingly, after the strike ended management made a whole number of union activists redundant and cut the shifts of a layer of casuals involved in the strike. While the workers won the dispute on the picket line the union leaders ended up handing it back at the negotiating table.

…Winning improvements to wages and working conditions through a collective agreement is just the beginning. Unless workers are organised on the shop floor, these improvements will inevitably be wound back…
The union organisation within the factory has been severely diminished.
The ongoing situation has demoralised the bulk of the members who are still employed at Baiada and will mean that a lot more work will need to be done before these workers are prepared to struggle at the same intensity again. …
While we would all prefer a ‘happily-ever-after’ story, unfortunately this bears no resemblance to reality. Socialists need to proceed from a proper assessment of what has taken place. As the German workers leader Ferdinand Lassalle once said “Every great action begins with a statement of what is.”

If our movement is to be strengthened socialists need to ensure first that a genuine analysis has taken place and the correct lessons are drawn at every stage of the struggle. While we need to praise every victory we also need give an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of every dispute….

Hose talks about the role of socialists but rather than emphasising the need to advance an alternative political and industrial strategy she merely talks about the staffing of pickets, the organising of BBQs and fundraising. The leaders of right-wing unions are more than happy for socialists to carry out these tasks. What they don’t want socialists doing however is offering workers an alternative to the class collaborationist strategy they employ!

A perfect example during the Baiada dispute was when the NUW leaders attempted to get the workers to sign a form to dip into their superannuation funds to cover their wages while they were on strike. They attempted to do this without properly explaining what the paperwork was!…we suggested that rather than using their retirement money, the NUW should wage a serious fundraising campaign amongst its 90,000 members and amongst other unions. …
…Socialist Party members conducted meetings with the workers – including in Vietnamese – explaining the nature of the forms and urging them not to sign them. It was proposed that they should campaign for a more serious attempt to develop solidarity amongst other workers in the NUW and beyond. If the union leaders refused to organise speaking tours and levies at other shops, the workers should have began the process themselves.

The workers then confronted the union leaders and told them they would not be signing the forms. One suggested that they “stop paying the ALP and use that money to support the strike”. …
We should be striving to organise this conscious layer into a militant current that can begin to offer a political and industrial alternative to the ALP. …’

I add that the views above represent only part of the debate.

Update: One approach is to analyse the struggle against precarious work as Plutonomy versus the Precariat: the growing class divide, e.g.

Other Secure Jobs reports to be discussed.
ACTU Howe report ‘Lives on Hold’
ACTU President Ged Kearney

and ACTU Congress 2012 resolution here

On reviving the strike

My speech on the right to strike at the ACTU Congress 2012 fringe

first join a union

first join a union

Don Sutherland AMWU on similar disputes Qantas has lessons

My FWA review submission for more secure jobs and the right to strike and new FWA legislative rights begin to counter precarious work.

I advocate militant action Baiada style and over the union movement in all sectors.

Within the severe constraints of our enterprise bargaining system, these local actions can develop into national and class campaigns to gain more secure work.

As well, unions build the union lobbing force to ensure the following amendments are passed by the Australian Parliament. Under Gillard, then Minister Shorten failed to address ACTU claims on precarious work.


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