MARYVALE Mill Australian Manufacturing Worker Union (AMWU) members congregated to form a picket line at Opal Australia’s front gates as enterprise agreement negotiations turned sour.

All AMWU members drove to work to receive a text at 5.20am this morning (Tuesday, February 6) informing them they had been locked out of the job.

These workers aren’t new to this – they’ve been here before in 2020. Opal has had a history of lengthy enterprise agreement negotiation periods, with the last maintenance enterprise agreement also featuring an AMWU member lockout.

Union flags quickly adorned the Maryvale Mill gates as workers made themselves comfortable on the grass. It remains uncertain how long Opal plans to keep workers from their jobs.

The employee lockout comes after a recent negotiation meeting where Opal demanded the unions agree on the removal of member quota numbers from the enterprise agreement.

Fight: The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union refuses to give into Opal’s demands for the new agreement as they believe it would risk their job security. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

Union believe that agreeing to Opal’s demands would effectively be like signing away their jobs, as the current agreement ensures the employment of members over contractors.

Although Opal had only locked out the 58 AMWU members, workers from other unions, like the ETU, joined the picket line to show their support.

AMWU’s delegate for the Maryvale Mill, Simon Peel, spoke to the Express as workers formed the picket line.

“We had a meeting last week with management – programmed for two hours and lasted thirty minutes – we could not move on one thing and with that (Opal) stated, ‘if you can’t move on that, nothing else is worthwhile talking about,” he said.

“These blokes have been fighting on and off for thirty years to get the conditions they have, and in one foul swoop, they want to take away pretty much all of it.”

Fence: Many workers formed a picket line outside the Maryvale Mill gates. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

The Maryvale Mill is planning a shutdown for February 17 for what workers call a ‘flip-flop’ where a hardwood mill is converted back into a pine mill.

Unions suspect Opal decided to bring on employer action now to come to a resolution before the proposed shutdown to avoid distribution from unionised members.

An AMWU representative suggested in this round of negotiations that Opal was coming to destabilise workers’ right to employment security.

“Everything is held at ransom on the one topic, which is around our security of employment. That’s the only thing we really want,” they said.

“We want to know that we’ve got a job tomorrow, next week and next year.”

Opal has been discussing a new enterprise agreement with maintenance team members, AMWU, the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the United Workers Union (UWU) since it expired in the second half of 2023.

The negotiations have reached a boiling point, as unions have pursued several protection industrial action methods after their demands were not met after numerous meetings with management.

Opal continues to stay firm on their demand to remove member quotas and erase the contractor’s clause, which Unions say poses a significant threat to their job stability.

“This numbers clause just ensures that they have to keep our workforce of full-time employees in place. They can’t be replaced with a contract workforce,” the AMWU representative said.

“With the contractor’s clause – which they also want to erase completely, that contractors ensure that the contractors that do come in can’t be used ahead of us, we must be the priority.

“We want to do the work. We’ve got pride in our work, and we want to do it.”

A communal sense of frustration came from the employees parked on the grass outside the mill as they not only felt as if their job security was on the chopping block but also work-life-balance as Opal brought rosters to the bargaining table.

The AMWU representative explained Opal’s proposed 38-hour work week averaged over a fortnight, where management can change rosters with only one week’s notice.

“They can tell you with only one week’s notice on Wednesday you’re now working a 12-hour day and it’s all on a single time, and the next week in that fortnight you do one hour less, there you go you have your 38 hours averaged out of that fortnight,” they said.

“You’ve had to do a 12 hour day, where you didn’t get to pick your kids up from school, and you had to change your plans that you previously made.

“They don’t even want to comment; they don’t even want to discuss it.”

Lockout: The AMWU has said they have grown tired of Opal Australia’s inability to negotiate in good faith. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic

In a media statement from Opal Australia, the organisation said they had made the financial challenges facing their operation clear and have pleaded with the AMWU, ETU and UWU to consider approaches other than a “rollover” against these challenges.

In response, the AMWU representative said Opal had many future profit prospects, including the Energy from Waste plant.

“They have taken a hit we know that. That being said, we also know the prospects going forward are pretty good; I mean, they’ve opened this box plant, which they supply to – they’re their own customer – how could this be a bad thing,” they said.

“The future looks pretty bright for the mill.”

Opal installed new cameras at the main gate alongside a new security checkpoint, which unions believe was a pre-emptive lock-out measure.

Opal said they have found themselves in a precarious situation financially since the closure of white paper manufacturing after the end of VicForests’ wood supply in 2022.

The corporation has said that the maintenance enterprise agreements in their current form pose “serious impediments to the Maryvale site”.

Opal has said they remain committed to securing the future of the mill.

“We continue to negotiate in good faith and remain open to further discussion on all items in the log of claims,” an Opal spokesperson said.

The unions certainly don’t find Opal’s negation ‘in good faith’, goring through the second locked out in the space of four years.

“This is what we’ve come to expect. We just cannot get a real discussion; we’re not being treated with the respect and dignity to have an adult discussion to meet in the middle,” the AMWU representative said.

“In that last meeting that only lasted half an hour, we suggested a hypothetical … they said to us ‘no, we’re not willing to discuss anything if you don’t agree to our claim’, does that sound like good faith bargaining to you?”

More to come.