Mass mill walkout on hold

A major walkout of about 170 maintenance workers at Maryvale Mill has been temporarily averted at the 11th hour, with unions and Australian Paper knuckling down for four days of “solid” enterprise bargaining negotiations today.

Maryvale’s ‘in-house’ maintenance workers, employed directly by Australian Paper, were due to commence a 48-hour protected stop work at 7am this morning, as part of protracted EA negotiations which began about six months ago.

The walkout would have coincided with Maryvale’s twice-yearly ‘half mill’ maintenance shut which begins today, putting the major project well behind schedule.

However unions indicated they remained committed to a five-day walkout on Monday if an agreement was not reached over the weekend, while both sides acknowledged preparations for a possible picket line.

While AP human resources manager Mark Nelson would not confirm rumours the company had brought in extra contractors from outside the area to offset the possible 170-worker shortfall, he said the company had contingency plans in place to ensure important shut work went ahead.

“We will be doing what’s particularly required to be done; within the shut there will still be a number of safety maintenance activities which will definitely be completed, and we will fit in whatever else we can,” Mr Nelson said.

He said last minute informal discussions had averted today’s “excessive” 48-hour stoppage, which in addition to weekend overtime bans and next week’s possible walkout, would have effectively become an 11-day straight stop work.

Mr Nelson said Australian Paper was using the negotiation period to right a number of “excessive errors”granted by the company in the previous enterprise agreement.

“In today’s climate, the deals done with the unions were unsustainable – some of those things we have given away in the past we just can’t afford anymore,” Mr Nelson said.

He pointed to a clause in which workers who did 12-hour shifts would get paid for 24 hours, while a worker called in for one hour of work would get nine hours pay.

Australia Manufacturing Workers Union organiser Steve Dodd, who represents more than 100 maintenance workers, acknowledged there were some valid points of discussion to be had regarding excessive conditions.

However Mr Dodd said job security and manning rates were of chief concern among the maintenance workforce in the development of a new EA, which had been due to take effect on 1 May.

Electrical Trades Union organiser Peter Mooney, who represents about 70 workers, confirmed the unions had considered picketing the mill, adding the industrial action was all part of ensuring the company took union members’ concerns seriously during periods of change.

“Them coming to the table (today) under these circumstances shows they really want to avert an industrial dispute, which is a good sign for a possible resolution – if that means we have to work through the weekend to get it then so be it,” Mr Mooney said.

In a development which has the maintenance workforce on edge, Mr Nelson has confirmed Australian Paper intends to reduce in-house maintenance positions at Maryvale.

“We are an exporting manufacturer in Australia that is facing the international challenges to be remain competitive,” Mr Nelson said.

“We can either continue to struggle with our competitiveness or we can deal with it and make everyone’s jobs more secure going forward.

“The reality around our business is that we are becoming leaner and will continue to become leaner.”

Mr Nelson said while the overall in-house workforce had been reduced by about 50 positions in the past few years, the maintenance area had only lost two positions, and was overdue for some “tightening”.

However Mr Mooney dismissed Mr Nelson logic as “ridiculous”, pointing to recent major maintenance contractor reductions at the plant.

“In our last (EA) round, when our boys came off annualised pay, the maintenance contractor workforce used to be about 100, and over the course of a couple of months was dramatically reduced down to 12, so they already made some bloody huge cuts to maintenance,” Mr Mooney said.