Australian Paper workers on strike

Workers are in their third day of picketing in front of the Australian Paper plant – the country’s major envelope manufacturer – in the Melbourne suburb of Preston in a dispute over pay and conditions.

Around 90 staff stopped working at the factory stopped work on Tuesday and formed a protest in front of the premises, after nine months of negotiations for a new enterprise agreement.

AMWU Victoria streamed a video of the workers via Facebook Live where Margaret Peacock, union member and packer at the Preston plant, implores people to come down and support the protest. She has worked at Australian Paper for 33 years.

Peacock says, “We are here out on the grass to strike for a fair deal at work, for our right to pay rises that the company says it is not going to give us. They are also trying to take four RDOs (rostered days off) from us, and they are also grandfathering our wages.  We really need people to come down here and support us and help us at 54 Raglan Street, Preston.”

Craig Dunn, senior marketing manager at Australian Paper says, “The discussions between Australian Paper and our employees are ongoing and remain confidential,” says Dunn. “We’re not sure how long the current situation will continue but we’re seeking to reach a mutually acceptable outcome at the earliest time. We are committed to reaching an agreement that represents the best outcome for the company and our employees at Preston. We also have measures in place to meet the needs of customers during this phase of our discussions.

[Related: Paper prices rising by 5 per cent]

Dean Griffiths, AMWU organiser says, “We kicked off picketing on Tuesday with indefinite stopping. The company understands the workers’ desires for the enterprise agreement, and until they make contact and are open to negotiations, the workers will not stop.

“The workers want to keep their current conditions, but the company has reduced RDOs from 16 to 12. We have asked for a three year agreement with annual increases of 2.5 per cent. The company has come back to us with a four year agreement with zero per cent in the first year, two per cent in the second and third and 2.5 per cent. That is a 6.5 increase over four years instead of a 7.5 per cent increase over three and that is just backwards. They are also looking to grandfather wages, it is tied up with classification structures. People with a certain skill are supposed to get a certain amount of pay. There is a figure for each classification. The EBA is lower than the workers’ current pay, so people with the most skills will not be receiving pay increases over the next few EBA cycles until others catch up, which could amount to more than six years.”

Peacock says, “We are still all determined, still all standing strong. We are going from 5:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night each day. We started on Tuesday, we had a meeting and we all unanimously voted to go out. There are about 88 people in the union and a couple are still working but the majority are outside. We cannot go back inside, they will take everything off us.

“Our main concerns is them taking away our RDOs, I have worked here for a long time and we have had 16 and now they want to take four away. People here work for them. There is also the grandfathering, people on top of the tier cannot get pay rises until everyone catches up. This covers about 80 per cent of our work force, they probably will not be able to get a pay rise. They have spent 20-30 years working towards this, doing the training and learning the machinery and now they are expected to train new people coming in, who will get rises while they do not. It is not fair.  

“The discussions for the agreement have been going on since March last year. Then Australian Paper produced envelopes for the gay marriage survey, which was a big job but during that time the company stalled on any decisions. They said your RDOs will be alright and then after the job they came back with an agreement that had only 12 RDOs.

“We are hoping they will come out and talk by next week.

“It is hard economic times, we do not understand why they will not cooperate with us. I have worked here for 33 years and have never seen a strike here like this. We are all pretty close, like family. Most people here have worked here for 20 plus years and they have a lot to lose.”

[Related: Paper workers taking pay cut]

Griffiths says, “The warehousing crew is actually making more money than the people who make the product. It seems wrong to me that people that load trucks and operate forklifts are paid more.”

“The workers are adamant about the changes. They get different pay according to what they do, whether they are a packer, operator or adjustor. Some of them have been working here for 20-30 years and it has taken all of that time to get to roughly $21.50 an hour. They are not a highly paid workforce. All of the major banks and the government are saying we need pay increases to grow as an economy and this is not in line with that.

“The difficulty about all of this is that it is a Japanese owned company, Nippon. The owners are offshore and they are sending over agreements and saying too bad, they will have to accept it. They are running it from afar, and the management here are only the middle men. I am middleman myself and I have to communicate with them and then go back to the workers and say no, they will not take it, try again.”

The Preston envelope and stationery factory is one of the company’s two plants, the other being its paper mill in the Victorian town of Maryvale. Australian Paper says the plant produces two billion envelopes annually. It was one of the main suppliers of envelopes during last year’s federal marriage law plebiscite.

Australian Paper was founded in Melbourne in 1868. It currently employs more than 1,300 staff, mostly in regional communities.

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