The Guardian May 1, 2002


Groundhog day in SA automotive industry

by Bob Briton

Groundhog Day was a '90's Hollywood comedy starring Bill Murray who, for a 
number of complicated and unlikely reasons, keeps waking up on the same day 
in a provincial town celebrating the unusual public holiday that gave its 
name to the movie. Until the very end of the show it seems that nothing the 
main protagonist does can change the events of the day. The whole show is 
based on the thoroughly hypothetical question: "What would it be like to 
live frozen in time and be unable to witness any change?"

Well placed to answer the question are the workers in the auto industry in 
Adelaide. Over the past week, events and their coverage in the media have 
gone back over a very familiar loop.

Mitsubishi has been considering whether or not to stay in Adelaide and 
produce two new vehicles here after 2005. The State and Federal Governments 
have come to the party and pledged $85 million of public money to encourage 
the transnational to stay.

This time, like on every previous occasion, the taxpayer largesse is given 
on very strict conditions including that 1300 new jobs will have to be 
created within the company's SA facilities. Nothing new here.

Elsewhere in the auto industry, a component manufacturer is holding out 
against worker demands for a trust fund to be established to protect 
entitlements. The manufacturer is holding out, refusing to even discuss the 
offensive suggestion and a strike has erupted.

The flow of necessary components to auto makers has dried up. Holdens at 
Elizabeth and Ford in Broadmeadows have shut down and asked workers to chew 
up their leave entitlements to get over the crisis. Mitsubishi might have 
to follow suit shortly.

The media has attacked the strikers for letting their mates down, for 
holding the industry to ransom. Tony Abbott has called the industrial 
action "treacherous" and "bloody-minded sabotage".

Before Mitsubishi's widely celebrated commitment to keep its operations in 
Adelaide, there was much concern expressed in the bosses' media that the 
industrial action might make an unfavourable impression on the potentates 
in far off Tokyo. Nothing new here, either.

For all these similarities there still are some distinctive features to the 
latest dispute centred on Walker Industries, the suppliers of exhaust 
systems to most of Australia's car industry. For a start, the industrial 
action is taking place within the period covered by the relevant Enterprise 
Bargaining Agreement (EBA).

Tenneco  parent company to Walkers  is using this fact to threaten the 
AMWU and organiser Tim Murray for damages of at least $500,000.

Tenneco is to seek an injunction in the Federal Court on Tuesday April 30 
in a session that will consider penalties and punishments. Holden and Ford 
are reported to be considering similar action. Striking workers have 
ignored these threats and an order from the Industrial Relations Commission 
to return to work. Clearly some major grievances are behind this very 
determined strike.

The main issue in dispute has to do with the unilateral decision on the 
part of Tenneco to drop its commitment to set up a trust fund designed to 
protect its workers' entitlements.

Before the conclusion of the EBA last November, there was widespread 
industrial action in the auto industry support of a scheme called Manusafe. 
This scheme would have obliged employers to contribute to an independently 
managed trust fund so that entitlements such as long service leave could be 
preserved. The experience of the collapse of Ansett should have served to 
highlight the need for such a scheme.

However, manufacturers and the Federal Government declared a total war on 
the concept.

Workers at Tristar held their management to a commitment to take out an 
insurance bond to safegard entitlements.

Other employers, like Tenneco undertook to set up and pay into a trust fund 
if no suitable, national, employer funded scheme is established in the 
meantime. Tenneco is now saying that the Federal Governments proposed 
"General Employee Entitlements Redundancy (GEER) Scheme" fits the bill and 
lets them out of their obligations..

Clearly Tenneco is in violation of the intent of the EBA it signed off on 
four months ago. Firstly, the GEER scheme is not in place, it is not 
employer funded and not even the long-suffering Ansett workers have derived 
any benefits from the fund.

AMWU organiser Tim Murray told The Guardian that he suspects that it may be 
up to five years before they wrestle any monies from the capped and 
restricted scheme.

Other more local issues still separate Tenneco from their workers. In the 
EBA was an agreement to two "information days" per year during work hours 
for the discussion of disagreements with union representatives.

In reality, this converts to two one-hour meetings that can take place only 
if production is not disrupted, if "appropriate" notice is given and if the 
agenda is agreed to by management! A request to discuss the situation of 
entitlements was refused by management six weeks ago.

Another sticking point has to do with company insistence that company 
doctors examine workers returning to work after sick leave, even if the 
illness or injury is not work related. The company seeks to justify this 
violation of workers' privacy by claiming that they have their staff's best 
interests at heart. More likely is that they want to prepare defences 
against compensation claims.

Evidence contradicting the company's expressed concern for workers' health 
is not hard to find. For example, workers are not eligible for weekend 
overtime if they are sick during the week, even if they have a medical 
certificate! This is a clear incentive for workers to keep working even 
though they might be sick or injured.

Contrary to the coverage in the mainstream media, it is Tenneco's steadfast 
refusal to negotiate issues in good faith that is the core of the dispute. 
Strenuous efforts on the part of AMWU Federal Secretary Doug Cameron and 
other union negotiators last weekend achieved only a minor shift in the 
company's position. Tenneco is now suggesting a five-member group to 
mediate the dispute.

Workers were to meet at the factory gates on Monday to consider the latest 
developments. They have the support of fellow AMWU members at Tenneco's 
other Adelaide-based component manufacturer Monroe, which produces 
suspension components. Workers there have levied themselves $20 to support 
their colleagues and may yet join the strike action if the dispute goes 
national.

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