The Occupation

JOHNNO’S the first through the gate.

One minute we’re standing in the dust of the car park outside the main entrance, wondering what to do next, and then the opportunity just presents itself. The dopey security guard opens the gate a crack to let in a workmate and before he has a chance to do anything, eight of us have stormed through the gap. We keep running like excited schoolkids, none of us quite believing we’re inside. I stop in the space between the yellow brick office building and the main warehouse, gasping for breath and not knowing what to do.

“The lunchroom!” shouts Johnno, and we all follow him through the unlocked door.

We’ve been here since six, the start of morning shift, the sun just starting to show its face. The union had warned us they’d try to lock us out and sure enough there was a freshly printed legal notice taped to the metal fence when we arrived. Terry ripped it off and tore it in half — as if that would make any difference.

Crispy took charge, telling us all to calm down, that they were doing exactly as we’d expected. “Nothing goes in or out,” he’d said, before getting on the phone to the union for reinforcements.

It was a grey morning and there wasn’t much to do except stand at the front gate and shout abuse at the hired security watching us from 50 metres away.

Johnno was pacing up and down. Every once in a while he’d kick the fence or yell something, the vein in his neck popping out so you could see the top of a tattoo that ran down to his shoulder. But the rest of us got bored with it pretty quickly and drifted back to our semi-circle on the dead grass next to the driveway.

“How long do you reckon we’re going to be here?” asked Gary. He was a young bloke in his mid-twenties, just recently a father and this was his first dispute.

Crispy drew on his cigarette. “Could be a few weeks . . . but don’t worry, the union’ll look after us.” Crispy’s seen his share of blues in his time. He threw the stub onto the ground and glanced over at Johnno, who was still pounding up and down outside the gates like an angry little dog ready to take your leg off at any moment.

“I’m not sure about that one,” Crispy said. “Gotta watch him. He’s liable to cause trouble for all of us”.

He shifted uneasily from foot to foot and craned around to face Johnno about 15 metres away.

“Johnno!” he yelled. “Johnno! Settle down mate . . . you’re making me nervous.” But Johnno just kept pacing.

INSIDE the lunchroom is just as it had been left by the Friday afternoon shift: weak light filters through the dusty windows onto empty mugs on the long laminex tables, the bin next to the microwave overflowing with empty soft drink cans, food wrappers and tea bags, a couple of brown-stained cups of half drunk instant coffee in the sink. There’s a ripped WorkSafe poster on one wall, a calendar on another, and dark smudges on the vinyl floor. “Jeez you guys are pigs,” says Theo in mock disgust.

A few of us sit down on the benches and start ringing home. I hear Gary’s voice in a strained whisper above the others: “That’s right, we’re inside. Inside . . . dunno, but we can’t leave now, we’re here until it’s over . . . I can’t . . . I just can’t . . .” His call ends abruptly and we all pretend we weren’t eavesdropping.

“So what happens now?” I say. It’s starting to occur to me that this wasn’t such a good idea. We’ve broken into the factory, we’re in the middle of an industrial dispute, the cops are probably on their way right now. And we’ve got no food. But we can’t leave, because leaving would mean defeat.

I look at Johnno. “Well Johnno, we followed you in here, what’s your plan?”

He’s a wiry little bloke, spiky orange hair and a bristly orange beard, pale arms covered in freckles. I’d guess he’s in his mid-thirties.

I don’t even know why he’s here. He’s a casual, the only casual among us, and this isn’t his fight. Not really.

He’s an angry cunt, but I’ve got to admit he’s a bloody good worker. He just turned up one day six months ago, one of a revolving group of casuals brought in by a labour hire company when we’re busy. He didn’t need to be shown how to work the die cutter, and did a better job than most of the older hands. He doesn’t give much away, never tells you what he’s done before or where he’s from. There’s a few rumours: that he’s been inside, that he’s some kind of socialist troublemaker.

Everyone used to be permanent in this plant but over the years we’ve seen that change. Every EBA has involved a trade-off and I can’t remember when we agreed to allow them to start using casuals. But now I reckon only about a third of us are permanent, and that’s falling every year. We’re only still here because we’ve been with the company so long it’d cost them too much to pay off our redundancies.

It’s not just that casuals are cheaper, but for the company, they’re like a tap they can turn on and off whenever they like. You don’t remember most of the casuals who pass through the place; why would you? They tend to keep to themselves, and there’s not much point trying to get to know someone who will be gone in a few weeks’ time. It must be a crappy way to earn a living, moving from job to job, filling gaps, never able to settle down or plan ahead, and always waiting for the next call or text message to tell you if you’ve got work or not.

And they’re all too scared to speak up if they see something wrong so really they’re just putty in management’s hands. Most of them aren’t in the union either.

But Johnno’s different. He leaves an impression. He’s got a kind of swagger about him, you could almost call it charisma. Johnno says all bosses are cunts, but somehow he got their respect. Or was it their fear? He stands up for himself. Early on he had refused to work on one of the machines because he reckoned the guard was faulty. Most casuals would just put up with it and take the risk. But Johnno complained, loudly, and eventually Polkinghorne had come out of his office and they’d had a bit of a blue. Crispy sorted it out after he’d threatened to get WorkSafe involved and the machine was put out of use until it could be fixed. I’d half expected them to get rid of Johnno then, but he kept getting shifts.

And now he’s got us into this mess. I look at him, waiting for an answer. He glances around the room.

“So here’s the situation,” he says finally. “These fuckers have locked us out because they think we’ll just meekly come back with our tail between our legs.

“But now, now we’re inside and they weren’t expecting that. So now they’ve got to work out a way to move us. And they can’t bring any scabs in to run the joint while we’re here.

“So what we do now is we make ourselves comfortable. We’re gonna be here for a while.”

THE first night is easy. The adrenalin is flowing and we’ve had plenty of support from the outside. True to form, the company had called in the cops and threatened to use force to evict us, but by then the media had already been in contact and they backed off. I guess the sight of the police cracking open heads on the nightly news wasn’t too appealing to them.

Crispy has been organising things from the outside and with the union he negotiated with management to get us some blankets and cigarettes in. A local roast chicken takeaway shop even supplies us with a few chooks and potatoes, so we have a feast that night.

There’s a bit of camaraderie in the lunchroom: Theo cracks us up with his endless stream of improbable stories about his sexual exploits as a young man — lucky it’s just us blokes in here — and Phuong digs out from a cupboard some board games which aren’t missing too many pieces.

I do a couple of media interviews before my phone runs out of battery. “What are your demands?” asks one journo, and I laugh to myself. World peace. A workers’ paradise. Revolution.

“We just want management to sit down and negotiate properly and fairly with us,” I tell him. “We’re sick of being fobbed off.” I’ve rehearsed my lines well, but it’s true. Six months we’ve been at this and we’ve made no progress. It’s like they want this thing to never end.

And we’re not asking for much, just a rolling over of the current conditions in the EBA with a 3x3x3 pay rise. Our one new demand is a restriction on the use of labour hire and contractors, and a guaranteed path for casuals to become permanents.

The company is insisting it won’t negotiate on the rest of the EBA until we agree to a change in our meal break pattern, getting rid of morning smoko. But that’d be an extra two-and-a-half hours they’d get out of us each week for no extra pay.

Eventually we had a stopwork with the union and voted to begin some minor bans. Johnno wasn’t eligible to vote, but I remember him at the edge of the meeting, not saying anything but nodding furiously when Crispy got up to speak in favour of the action.

So the first day and night are easy. Time passes quickly with the media attention and we have plenty of supporters and workmates drop by for a chat. When the joint next door finishes for the day, a dozen or so of them come over to the gate to wish us luck. Their own EBA is coming up and a win by us might make their bosses back down a little.

But the next few days are harder. Boredom sets in, the meals become more drab — Two Minute Noodles and lukewarm meat pies — and we have fewer visitors. The flickering of the fluoro is getting on my nerves and the lunchroom begins to feel like a prison. With most of our phones now out of battery, we’re struggling to keep up with what’s happening outside and there’s a bit of niggle as old tensions begin to surface.

“Hang in there fellas,” says Crispy through the gate at dusk on the third day. You’ve got to admire the bloke: he didn’t make it inside before they locked the gates, and he could be home snug in his bed, but he’s camped on the nature strip next to the main entrance since the start. He says the union has been in touch with the company and is demanding that the regional manager gets personally involved in the negotiations. But it’s not enough to lift our spirits.

The only one who isn’t despondent is Johnno. He’s as jumpy as ever, but he’s constantly haranguing us and urging us to stay positive.

Gary looks like he’ll be the first to crack. His eight-month-old son is sick and his girlfriend is on her own. He wants to get out and join them. I feel a bit of sympathy, picturing myself in his situation if this had happened when the girls were young.

“No-one leaves,” Johnno insists. “If one of us leaves, they’ve won. We’re all in this together now. They’re either gonna have to give in or they’re gonna have to drag us out.”

He looks Gary in the eye.

“Ya hear me? No-one leaves.”

ON the Saturday, six days into the occupation, the union organises a community barbecue outside the main gate. There’s a sausage sizzle, some entertainment for the kids, a woman from the Labour Council says a few words of solidarity, and a guy gets up with an acoustic guitar and sings some half-recognisable folk songs. We watch through the gates. They try to involve us, but it’s not the same as being out there.

It’s late afternoon and they’re packing up when an excited Crispy comes hobbling to the gate as fast as his two bung knees can carry him. He’s waving his phone in the air. “They’ve agreed to start talking!” he says. “They’re even bringing the national manager into it!”

This is the best news we’ve had for days and there’s a fair bit of back-slapping but Johnno cuts through the celebrations. “It’s just talking,” he says. “It doesn’t mean anything unless they agree to drop their demands.”

But he’s wrong. The next afternoon we’re told that the union and management have negotiated an in-principle agreement which will see them drop their demand for the change to the smoko break. We’ll get the 9% pay rise we wanted without losing any of the conditions in the EBA.

In return, the union has agreed to withdraw its demand for a cap on labour hire, and the conversion of casuals to permanents is put off for “further discussions in the life of the agreement”.

Crispy is adamant there’s nothing to stop us ending the occupation with our heads held high. “We’ve lost nothing,” he says. Most of us are just relieved that we’ve got an excuse to leave the factory and go home. We hold a quick vote in the lunchroom and all the niggle of the last few days is over. Johnno is strangely quiet, but no-one pays much attention in the hurry to get out.

Gary borrows someone’s phone to ring his girlfriend and tell her the good news. I find myself thinking of Tina and the girls, before it all turned to shit.

Gary’s beaming when he hangs up. “I just wanna thank you guys,” he stammers. “I’ll admit there’s been times when I’ve thought of packing it in, but the way we’ve all stuck together . . . I don’t think I’ll ever be involved in something like this again.”

We march out of the lunchroom to the front gates together and it looks like the entire workforce is there to greet us: Marty, Alex, Duncs, Ranjit . . . and at the front of them all, Crispy. There’s cheering and clapping and handshakes and hugs as we walk through the gates. Someone’s brought a slab and I’m drawing deep from a stubbie when I think of Johnno. Where is the bastard? In the excitement, I now realise he wasn’t with us when we marched out.

I look back at the factory, trying to see through the rapidly fading light. I can just make him out, lingering by the lunchroom door looking back our way. I turn back to my mates and gulp down some more beer but it doesn’t taste so good now.

IT’S a few weeks before I see Johnno again. I’m in the Coles car park, putting some bags into the boot when the trolley collector brushes past pushing a dozen trolleys in a long train. That wiry figure like a coiled spring is hard to forget. He’s wearing one of those cheap fluoro vests and has a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.

“Johnno!” I yell, but he keeps going, so I shove the bags into the boot and race after him. I catch him as he’s pushing the trolleys back into the bay.

Johnno!”.

He turns around slowly and I can feel the contempt in his eyes. But I’ve got to deal with this.

“What happened to ya, mate? We all went back to work on the Monday, they put on a whole heap of casuals to help overcome the backlog . . . ?”

“What do ya reckon?” he sneers. And he doesn’t need to explain. He was a casual and I can just picture the labour hire boss telling him, sorry, but there’s no more work for you over there. That’s the way it is for casuals: whether they work or not is at the whim of the boss. All totally legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

“Johnno . . . ah, fuck it . . . we let you down,” I say, and his face softens slightly.

“I can’t blame you blokes for looking after yourselves,” he says. “It’s dog eats dog, and the casuals are the weakest mongrels going around.” I can’t think of anything more to say that won’t sound forced or insincere so we stand there awkwardly for a moment.

“Gotta get back to work,” he says. “I’ll see ya around.” He goes back to his trolleys and then turns around, a sly grin on his face, and gives me an ironic thumbs up. “Viva la revolution, eh?”

I force out a chuckle and head back to my car. It’s not fair; it’s not bloody fair, I think. He could be a pain in the arse, but he was a bloody good worker.

I think back to how the occupation started, how it was Johnno who led us into the factory grounds, and how if he’d not seized the initiative, it probably wouldn’t have happened. How the occupation not only forced management to come around to our position, but it brought all of us closer together. We’re a tight unit now. If management are bastards to one of us, they’ll have to deal with all of us. We’ll stand together, and next time we’ll win for the casuals too.

I’m thinking all of this, and I want to say it to Johnno, so I turn back to where he was shoving his trolleys into the bay.

But he’s gone.

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