Joy mining workers holding the line
by Rowan Cahill* The Australian operation of Joy Mining Machinery (Joy) is headquartered on the outskirts of the semi-rural town of Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales (NSW). It is a pleasant industrial site, surrounded by mature pines and deciduous trees, and bordered by brick veneer housing, the Sydney-Melbourne train line, and rural pasture land. Joy produces mining equipment and has 377 full-time employees in Australia, with branches in Northern NSW and Queensland. Since 1994 it has been part of the US-based multinational Harnischfeger Industries Incorporated. Harnischfeger is in economic straits, due to poor boardroom decisions and bad luck. It 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"; in August last year it announced it would shed 3100 workers — 20 per cent of its work force. Helping bankroll the meaner, leaner multinational is a $750 million Chase Manhattan loan. Outside the Moss Vale engineering works there is a six-month-old picket line. Near the Administration entrance stands a union flag bedecked picket site shed, a portable toilet, a barricade sized stack of fire wood, and a large drum brazier. A kilometre or so down the road, outside the Works entrance, is a similar encampment. This line has been manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week since late March, in spite of the extremes of the recent Winter with its snow and zero temperatures. Trouble began at Joy last year. New management came in; there were redundancies without prior warning and high profile unionists with Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) negotiating skills were part of the non-voluntary cull. Negotiations for a new EBA began in September, and ran into trouble, with rolling stoppages in January. In early February the company tried for the negotiation of four agreements in place of one, a move unionists saw as an attempt to erode worker unity and bargaining power. So far as unionists were concerned, the Joy style throughout seemed intent on closing unions out of negotiations. Hostilities increased when the company threatened workers with either lockout or company closure in lieu of settlement. The picket line formed in late March when the company began to transfer unfinished jobs off site. Rejecting union demands that it abandon the four separate agreements strategy, Joy responded by registered mail, sending workers lockout notification for three months beginning April 14, 2000, an action legitimised by the 1996 Workplace Relations Act (WRA). This was the first of two long lockouts. When the picket line held, management secured Supreme Court injunctions against the unionists, members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU), the Australian Workers' Union (AWU), and the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU), preventing them from blockading the site. Originally 73 workers walked off the job, but some crossed the line in May, while personal circumstances compelled others to withdraw from the industry; 64 men remain firm and recently voted to remain on the line until October 9. These workers are a mixture of young and old men, all of them locals, many with dependent families; some had been with the company for decades before it became a multinational plaything; others are relatively new, some with experience in rural companies where economically troubled managements have tried to walk out on paying entitlements. Emotionally and financially the dispute has hit them all hard. They are now surviving on anorexic budgets, personal savings, the contributions of family and friends, family allowance payments, credit, and Strike Fund payments. After nearly six months holding the line the mood of the men is bitter, and some feel frustrated; but there is an underlying firm, sometimes wry, resolve. Families visit whenever possible; union organisers have been active and supportive. There is wide community support with local businesses donating supplies. The South Coast Labour Council has been a significant and positive political force. Solidarity stoppages have taken place at other Joy worksites. There has been welcome financial and moral support from the wider union movement. Internationally there have been expressions of solidarity from the United Steelworkers of America, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Joy has significant South African interests), and the Geneva based International Metalworkers' Federation has threatened an international campaign against Joy. Throughout the dispute the Moss Vale site has continued to operate, albeit in a greatly reduced capacity, and in the early days of the dispute with massive police protection. Supervisory, office and management personnel have functioned in capacities well beyond original job descriptions. Buttressing their efforts has been a seemingly bottomless pit of financial and legal support, dirty tricks, and a very large contingent of security personnel; the total cost of all these must far exceed the cost of meeting the modest pay claim originally sought by the workers. When the company does contact picketing workers, it is by letter to home addresses, such correspondence characterised by 19th century paternalism and industrial threats. For their part the striking/locked-out workers have not been idle. Apart from manning the line and maintaining some semblance of normality in their personal lives, delegations have toured NSW and interstate explaining the dispute to other workers, seeking expressions of solidarity and financial support. They led the May Day march in Wollongong; a deputation dropped in on Chase Manhattan in Sydney to question the giant bank's relationship with Harnischfeger — needless to say they were unwelcome. Rallies and factory occupations have occurred at non-union workplaces in Wollongong, 70 kilometres away, where Joy has attempted to shift its operations. Attendances at actions have been videoed and photographed by Joy operatives; agents have variously posed as media representatives, and a private detective was hired, to identify participants; hundreds of subpoenas have been issued by the company to stifle opposition. Personal damages claims totalling $1.7 million have been issued against key unionists. Joy has five separate court actions in place, and Section 166A proceedings are under way (to gain the necessary certification to be able to sue unions, their officers and members under the WRA). Attempts by the unions, the Industrial Relations Commission and the ACTU to settle the dispute have been fruitless. In the latest provocation scabs ("contractors" in the terminology preferred by Joy), recruited interstate, have commenced work at the Moss Vale site. And so the struggle goes on, away from the glare of the city media. While Moss Vale is only a small rural point on the map, the struggle has the hallmarks of life in the callous industrial world of global deregulation, where national governments and courts help multinationals ride roughshod over the lives of working people. Amongst the workers there is awareness that the dispute has little to do with enterprise bargaining; and possibly never did. For all the money spent and the angst caused by the company, there must be other agendas; agendas set in an American boardroom. More likely the dispute is about deunionisation, the use of contract labour, downsizing, restructuring, maybe eventually the closure of the Moss Vale operation. The workers are also concerned about their accrued entitlements. Some workers think the dispute is an industrial test case of some kind, though for whom and for what they are not sure; in many ways the Joy dispute is a mini version of the one run by Patrick Stevedores against waterfront workers in 1998, minus balaclavas and savage dogs (although the future presence of these at Moss Vale would not surprise anyone on the line). No matter what the agenda, the picket line is firm, the site sheds and flags a reminder that the union spirit is alive in the 21st century. Whatever else Joy management set out to do, it has ironically reinforced unionism in these rural backblocks. Donations to support these workers and their families during the dispute can be made at any Commonwealth Bank of Australia branch into the Joy Workers Fighting Fund. Account No: 062576. Identification No: 10103983.
* * **Rowan Cahill has been reporting the dispute for Workers Online (http://www.workers.labor.net.au) since April.