Global building products firm Knauf has indefinitely locked out around 70 workers at its Port Melbourne plant in Victoria over a dispute over a new company agreement.
The lockout began on September 16, in response to a series of one or two hour stoppages and overtime bans by workers. A worker said World Socialist Website journalists that management had called him at home and threatened him with legal action if he continued to refuse overtime.
Workers voted unanimously on August 24 for protected industrial action, after rejecting a proposed agreement containing a 5% wage increase in 2022, followed by 4% increases in each of the three years following, well below the rapid increase in the cost of living.
The proposed deal would also have given the company more leeway to bring in casual employees rather than permanent staff. Currently, Knauf uses a pool of five hired workers to replace permanent workers when they are furloughed, but the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Maritime Energy Union (CFMMEU) says the company is seeking to raise this figure to 50% of Port Melbourne’s workforce. .
The CFMMEU is calling for annual salary “increases” of just 6%, less than the official June quarter inflation rate of 6.1% and well below the expected increase of at least 7.75% d end of the year. Significantly, these “official” inflation figures do not include the impact of rising mortgage payments, which have soared after successive interest rate hikes by the Reserve Bank.
One of the locked out workers told the WSWS he worked up to 60 hours a week in order to earn enough to support his family. Rising interest rates had hit particularly hard, with his mortgage payments rising nearly 50% from $2,100 to $3,100 a month. Another worker said increases in the cost of fuel and food were crippling.
A third worker said he would have to find another job if the dispute continued. This is because of a conscious decision by the CFMMEU bureaucracy to starve these workers.
The workers received no strike pay, despite the immense resources of the CFMMEU, one of Australia’s largest unions. The Construction and General subdivision of the Victoria-Tasmania branch alone holds some $80 million in net assets.
Rather than tap into his vast wealth, the union and the Victorian Trade Hall Council have launched a crowdfunding page with the aim of raising $30,000. To date, he has raised less than $15,000 because unions have done little to promote him. Even if the goal is met, as the lockout now enters its third week, the total would amount to less than $30 a day per worker.
In already difficult economic conditions, the CFMMEU ensures that the lockout will cripple the workers financially, leaving them no choice but to accept any rotten deal the company offers them.
The same strategy was used by the United Workers’ Union at the Coles’ Smeaton Grange distribution center, where around 350 workers were locked out in November 2020. On more than ten occasions, workers rejected employer offers- unions essentially unchanged until, after more than three months without union financial support beyond a few supermarket vouchers, the proposed deal was accepted by a narrow margin.
Unions are also doing all they can to isolate Port Melbourne workers. The CFMMEU has said nothing about the dispute on its national Facebook page, and most unions that cover workers at Knauf facilities in other states have also remained silent. The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union posted its first message yesterday.
This allowed the company to mitigate any financial impact of the lockdown, with production elsewhere in the country unaffected. A worker told the WSWS that the company imports stock from other states in order to fulfill the contracts.
Knauf is headquartered in Germany with estimated global revenues of $24 billion and operations in all regions of the globe. In Australia, Knauf has revenues of over $1 billion and operates three very large factories, including Port Melbourne in Victoria, Camellia in New South Wales and Pinkenba in Queensland.
Workers at the Port Melbourne site have also expressed concerns about safety. One said that WSWS production had recently been halted for three weeks to install a safety device on a machine, following the death of a worker using similar equipment at a Knauf factory in Russia. He also pointed to a recent gas leak, during which the plant was only partially evacuated and said the site did not have adequate first aid facilities.
Workers are also concerned about the presence of carcinogenic silica dust in the plant. They have been given face masks but want laundry facilities so they don’t have to take contaminated clothes off the premises to wash them.
Although the CFMMEU has recently shown opposition to these conditions, the reality is that the union is responsible, having allowed these safety issues to exist unchallenged for many years.
The Knauf conflict shows once again that the role of the trade union bureaucracy is that of an industrial police of management. The CFMMEU consciously seeks to exhaust the locked-out workers and isolate them from their counterparts at other Knauf facilities around the country and around the world, in order to prevent any opposition to the company’s attack.
In order to fight for decent wages and conditions and a safe workplace, Port Melbourne Knauf workers must break from the union and take matters into their own hands.
Workers must fight to build a grassroots committee to democratically determine a set of demands based on workers’ needs and prepare an action plan to fight for them.
In direct opposition to the unions’ isolation tactics, locked-out workers must reach out to fellow Knauf workers, across manufacturing and construction industries and more broadly in the working class.
Australia is in the early stages of a wave of industrial action, with workdays lost due to strikes reaching levels not seen in a decade. The new federal Labor government came to power in May this year and immediately replaced its election promise of a ‘better future’ with an insistence that workers must make ‘sacrifices’.
As is happening around the world, the rapidly rising cost of living has pushed working people to their limits, as the ruling class seeks to pass the cost of mass donations onto big business during the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalation of military spending on the backs of working people.
It is to this growing movement that the workers of Port Melbourne Knauf must turn, in order to wage a struggle, not only against their employer, but against the unions, labor and all other representatives of big business and the system of capitalist profit.