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Workers win through strong action and unity

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Marcus H. 

A fine example of action and unity was set by workers taking prompt action to occupy their worksite when the bosses of International Flavours and Fragrances multi-national locked them out of the Dandenong factory in Melbourne.

Following a five day lock-out, workers employed by International Flavours and Fragrances successfully fought back the company managements plan to offer a below inflation wage increase and the attempt to strip back hard fought and won conditions.

The sixty workers at the Dandenong South factory, a food manufacturing plant, members of the National Union of Workers (NUW), had been in negotiations for a new Enterprise Agreement since September 2014. 

Following four months of negotiations, the multi-national International Flavours and Fragrances offered the workers a fifty-five cents per hour wage increase, sought to remove one of two ten minute rest pauses and attempted to abolish the entitlement whereby the unused accrual of sick leave was cashed out annually.

One worker on the picket line said the system of cashing out of unused sick leave was historically a condition which ensured a low rate of absenteeism, yet the company was not interested in reciprocating that loyalty through their attempt to remove that condition.

Desperate to maintain their conditions, and win a reasonable wage increase, the sixty workers embarked on industrial action through paperwork bans. The company’s reaction was severe, taking the action of locking its entire workforce out. 

Through the Fair Work Act, workers must give three days’ notice of their intended industrial action, after having their application approved by the Fair Work Commission. Employers, however, are not required to give any such notice to employees. 

Speaking recently on Rank and File Radio, a Trade Union program on Melbourne’s Community radio 3CR, former assistant secretary of the South Australian Trades and Labour Council, Chris White, a prolific writer on the right to strike, stated “The lock-out should not be allowed, the right to strike is only there to balance off the more powerful employers”

The NUW members arrived at their outer suburban workplace on Tuesday January 27th to find the company would lock the workers out of the factory. Those workers stormed the gates and headed for the lunch room. Determined to overcome the powerful company, the workers took control of the situation and occupied the building for the next four days.

The tactic was similar to that of the Smiths Food workers, also NUW members who had embarked on an occupation of their Tingalpa, Queensland factory in December of 2014.

During the occupation, which was dubbed Occupy Dandenong, the workers, through the solidarity of many other unionists, called on the local management to step out of negotiations, and demanded the Asia Pacific management meet with their Union Representatives to resolve the dispute.

Late on Friday January 30, the workers emerged from the occupation and joined the picket line after the Singapore based management had agreed to meet with the workers engaged in this struggle. 

On Sunday February 1st, the five day lock-out concluded with the dispute resolved. The workers won a wage increase of 6.3% over the three year period of the new Enterprise Agreement, significantly greater than the companies pre lock-out deal. The victorious workers also maintained their rest pause and the sick leave accrual provision.

In response to the Dandenong South lock-out and the subsequent occupation, when the issue was commentated on Rank and File Radio, White added “Companies shouldn’t have these legal rights” he continued “Workers took the appropriate action of occupying, because part of the reason employers want a lock-out straight away is to make sure the workers are pushed out of the plant, and have to go away on their own” 

The strength of the small, but united, group of Dandenong workers gathered momentum with every hour of the occupation, assisted through the solidarity of thousands of other workers across Australia. New secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council, Luke Hilakari, told the workers they had taught the trade union movement a “valuable lesson when it comes to dealing with being locked-out”, when unionists and community supporters assembled on the Saturday, with victory imminent.

Under the capitalist system workers’ hard won gains are never permanent, with the bosses always trying to take them away.  The erosion of living standards and the rising cost of living compels workers to demand more (wages) for the labour power they sell to the capitalist class.  Equally, the falling rate of profit and the capitalist economic crisis compels the bosses to intensify the exploitation of workers through cuts to wages, increased productivity, speed ups, extension of working hours, attacking the previously hard won health and safety and many working conditions. 

The workers at IFF have demonstrated that the working class can often win when united workers take the initiative and control the struggle. Nothing is guaranteed, except “if you don’t fight, you lose!”   Class struggle never ceases.


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