The Storm Over The Picket Line.

On a Friday evening I drove out to the industrial zone in Dandenong to visit a group of factory workers from Fletcher’s Insulation on the 50th day of their strike action.

They’d pitched tents and parked a caravan in the carpark outside Fletcher’s.

Someone had set up a pool table…

…and a bbq.

After a brief first visit, I returned on Saturday to interview workers.

The men offered me homemade biscuits and soft drinks, and spoke about their work, the unions and the strong workplace camaraderie they’d developed.

A wood delivery arrived and a fire was set up during the rain to help keep the men warm.

I left late on Saturday afternoon, during a massive storm. Lightning crashed down around the tent.

The strike continues.

Fred: I’ve been here 40 years.

Now we’re on strike fighting for things we’ve had for years. They’re trying to take away things we’ve had all this time, I think. That’s what the main trouble is. It’s not just taking away one little thing. It’s a lot of the things we’ve already fought for.

Back when the company had different owners and a different name, one of the chaps I used to work with, one day something happened wrong on the machine and it killed him.

He was working on the machine, and he reached down and touched something on the machine, and well….the machine closed down on top of him from memory. His son still works here. I wasn’t here on the day he died — but his son was there.

After the pink batts scandal a few years ago… there was a lot of pink batts. Trucks was bringing stuff back. Trucks that was supposed to be delivering it to the suppliers. They were just saying “nup, we don’t want it.” A lot of the little ones went out of business overnight. It slowed things down. We had a lot of stuff on-hand we had to have stacked outside. All that carpark over there, it was just full of pink batts. We put tarps over it, but the weather got to it. Work still went on.

I don’t have kids or a partner. There’s been a lot of long-serving people here now. In the past, people used to just leave on the job, just quit, because it was tough. It’s a lot better now they’ve put machines in.

Over time they put new machines in — but they also put some people off. Manning levels went down. Can’t stop that — and that’s good for them [the company] to make our work safer and make more stuff — but now some say we’ve got too many entitlements.

The machinery putting the pink batts in bags, we used to have to do that by hand. Now it goes automatically into the bagger. They’ve let go of people in admin too. We do some of the paperwork ourselves on computer now too. They say it’s our job now to count stuff and put it in the computer. Computers are part of the job now.

We go to the Commission next week. You’d have to ask the union delegates from the Australian Workers’ Union about that.

It’s a minefield out there what the unions can do and can’t do.

You have to think how much you’ve got left in you and what your financial status is. They’ve been making it harder for someone to retire at 65 or 60.

It’s unbelievable, it is. They’ve just moved the goal-posts. We’ve been playing these games and they’ve moved the goalposts. Society, the government, big companies, bosses… look at the way America’s gone. You’ve got the working poor over there. I don’t know how people over there survive. You work hard here and next thing you know they’re bringing in casual labour.

Barry: I’ve been working here almost 25 years. This strike is about conditions.

Up on the furnace if something goes wrong, or the forklift…no industry is 100% safe. It can be dusty here, sometimes on the line there’s a lot of manual handling. We make a lot of industrial products. Things have to be done right.

There’s quite a bit of second generation workers here. It’s important to keep our standards up. Full time jobs are very scarce. You need a backbone to survive tough days. If I wasn’t doing this job… I dunno. I finished high school to year 11.

We’re on rotational shifts. It pays above minimum wage, but the conditions are very important to us.

We work a 35-hour week and we intend to keep it that way. We don’t intend to go fifty years back or 100 years back in time in working rights. And our redundancy payments are very important to us. If the gates shut tomorrow, then what would we do? How would we survive without our redundancies? Especially if you’re a young family bloke with kids and a large mortgage…you need time to find a job. These days you can’t just walk into another job like in the past.

Before I started here, the last generation, they used to handle the pink bats by hand and load them onto the trucks, now the bats are compressed and unitised by computers. When I started in the warehouse there was 20 operators — now there’s 10.

The previous management were ok. They used to have a barbecue with us every so often. But managers move on, they only stay in a job for so long. But three managers ago, we had a “Berlin wall.”

Back then we didn’t trust management, management didn’t trust us. Lucky if you got a “hello” from management back then. Then the new manager, the one before this one, he says “good morning boys”, talks about football and all that — but he found a better job and moved on a few years after the pink batts crisis. The ‘Berlin Wall’ with management is going back up higher than before I think.

During the pink batts crisis… they put all the pink batts through the compactors and into the rubbish bins because it got all wet, stacked up in the rain after the government cut the stimulus package. We were stuck with acres and acres of pink batts, and we couldn’t sell ’em, and so we got rid of ’em. We lost one shift of twenty people after that, but then they brought that shift back on now a few years later.

We’ve had about maybe over 20 years without industrial action probably before this.

The Monash Student Union students, they came down here to support us, and that was good of them. Gave us a boost. You want a cup of tea?

We have a picket line so we can keep an eye on if the company if using scab labour. We can’t block trucks now ‘tho. The company has an intervention order.

Joe: I don’t play footy anymore, but I used to. I’ve been working here a while. I’ve got a wife and little kids.

I enjoy the work, it pays the bills — it’s a good bunch of people to work with. It can be a bit mundane at time, but there’s scope to move up the ranks.

What was supposed to be a bonanza with pink batts turned into a disaster. It was an unmitigated disaster from the government because they let cowboys into the game. The company couldn’t keep up with production at first and then had to import product — but then there was bundles and bundles of product just sitting there after the program stopped, and we had to write it all off.

After the scheme fall over we ended up dropping back to three shifts. I guess now they’ve got more market share and the Aussie dollar is good for the company. Maybe it’s harder for the importers to compete with us. That’d be good for the company, right?

Up in the “forming”, the hot end where they make the product to go down the line, they have highly-skilled people working up there. There’s been some serious incidents, but not during my time.

We’re not asking for anything silly. We’re just asking for our conditions to be maintained, conditions we fought for already.

Every shift has a couple of casuals. I started as a casual, but I was made full time not long after I started.

Alex: I’ve worked here more than a decade. We’re here because the union and the management aren’t on the same level. The boys aren’t happy with what is being offered by the company.

We haven’t got what we want yet though. Basically we have to maintain the levels that we’re on, and we have to maintain all the standards we’ve been on for the last lot of years.

I have kids. If I wasn’t working here, I’d find other work in other companies — at least I think so. I love working in this workplace. Everyone is aware of what safety is in this workplace. The unions have been out here helping, the unions help a lot. The safety reps are very active. The workers are keen on safety procedures. The working conditions are above average and the people here are very friendly. We’re like a family.

There’s been a change in management. Management comes and goes, but we’re still here. The managers now have a different style.

I think with regards to the membership in the union everyone is very supportive. I hope a lot of people outside will understand what is going on in this workplace and will try to see what’s going on between two sides.

Ned: I was working at another place down the road for years, and I saw erosion of rights and issues there. So I decided enough was enough, and I heard there was a position here that I could apply for, so I did.

For me personally, I saw the strike was going to come, even though I wasn’t involved with the union but was just a member, I could see it coming and I’m all for that.

There’s certain things our delegates are trying to put through with a log of claims and well yeah, I think the strike is what we need to do. It’s unfortunate.

This place, it’s like becoming my home.

Yesterday evening my wife was going to bed and I felt compelled to come here. It’s like — I’m not home if I’m not here. This is my family too.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my family. I’ve got lots of children. The youngest is two years old. As you get older, you’re in the workforce for twenty, thirty years, a lot of your time is at work, away from your family. They’re your family.

A lot of guys have families I know — I have fond memories of them.

I left school in year 10, but… I built a race car, did up all the wiring myself. I think I’m intelligent when I want to be. It’s a circuit car. Just for test ’n tune days. It’s just a hobby.

I’ve come from a place where I saw casuals increase and I’m concerned about what happens to other places. I’m okay, but I’m concerned for the others…

I think we have to stand up for our conditions, but I wouldn’t like the idea of going back in there right now. We don’t know how this is going to turn out, but it wouldn’t be nice to go back with a poor outcome.

Up the top end of the factory, the batts there are like molten lava when they’re being formed. It’s pretty fast-paced. I’m pretty sure the company doesn’t want injuries. When there’s an incident report they follow it up. I haven’t seen any major injuries.

I have friends and families who say “how long you gonna be here,” and I say “it’s til the cows come home.” We’re here on this picket line until they stop trying to do what they’re trying to do.

New governments never repeal what previous governments bring in — I just lost faith in them. My problem with politicians is they isn’t for the people. Like when I saw Trump, I wondered…but now I think he’s got no chance of changing anything.

Us older people are pretty concerned about the younger generation. They don’t care about the unions, but they’ll have a rude awakening if corporations get what they want. I have three sons and I’ve always taught them “you’ve got to join the union.”

This is a stand. Enough’s enough. We’ve been out here striking 51 days and counting.

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