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.