Alcoa workers’ strike

Published on Mon 17 September 2018 7:10pm

Mr Wilson (7:10pm) — I’m very glad to speak on this motion, because the unacceptable situation being endured by 1,600 Alcoa workers in Western Australia is a big issue in my part of the world. It speaks to an issue of national importance, and it speaks to the need to change the rules.

Make no mistake: as they stand, the rules of our industrial system are seriously out of whack with our values, and, what’s more, the poor function of those rules is contributing to the broad economic malaise caused by stagnant real wages in this country.

We cannot have a situation where a workforce has their existing agreement pulled out from under them. We cannot have a situation where employers can unilaterally cancel an existing enterprise bargaining agreement, threaten their workforce with a loss of pay and conditions, which is inherent in being dropped back to the underlying award, and then force them to bargain all over again, under threat, for terms that have been won in the past. That is simply wrong, and yet that is what is occurring at Alcoa. It’s what occurred at Griffin Coal in Collie in WA, resulting in a protracted and damaging dispute that was ultimately won by the workers and their representatives, the AMWU. It was in prospect at Murdoch University, involving, again, a stressful and unseemly dispute, in which the staff and NTEU ultimately prevailed.

We cannot allow this practice to continue. It’s a denial of the basic principles of fair and good faith bargaining and it’s contributing to a nationwide problem in the form of falling real wages—wages that have become completely disconnected from productivity and profits. It will only get worse if companies are allowed to callously scupper existing agreements and send workers back to ground zero, it will only get worse if new agreements continue the trend towards more insecure work, and it will only get worse if our system doesn’t regulate out the pernicious use of labour hire and false casuals.

The Alcoa strike that began on 8 August is action being taken to preserve existing pay and conditions, especially in relation to job security. Alcoa wants to impose worse conditions on its workforce, especially in relation to the security of their jobs. The workers and their union want to maintain their position. In the ballot on Alcoa’s proposal to reduce job security and provide a less than one per cent pay increase, 80 per cent of the workforce voted no—no surprises. In response, this motion, unfortunately, is big on platitudes and short on clarity and commitment. It calls on Alcoa and the Australian Workers’ Union to reach an agreement. Wow, really! What further advice could the member for Canning have for both sides? Should the AWU roll over and see the workers they represent cop a manifestly worse deal at a time of rising non-discretionary costs and record household debt?

What this motion should say is: such action is wrong. It goes against the principles of fair bargaining and common sense. No company should seek to reach a new agreement by such tactics, and the law needs to be changed to prevent it in future. Instead, this motion makes reference to electricity prices as if Alcoa were under some new cost pressure that justifies this action. Yet nothing in particular has changed for Alcoa on that front. As the member for Perth pointed out, Alcoa essentially has its own power arrangements and its own gas reserves in place. The company itself has made no reference to the issue. Indeed, while the workers in WA face stagnant wages and record underemployment, Alcoa, last year, made a record $1.6 billion profit. So the reference to electricity prices is a complete red herring. It is a nonsense.

The reality is that Alcoa workers in WA are fighting for a fair go. It’s no small thing to go off the job. It’s no small thing to go weeks without pay. Alcoa workers and their families are enduring significant financial pain in order to protect their livelihood. Some of those families will be struggling to keep on an even keel to pay their mortgages and to meet other commitments. Some of those families will, right now, be cancelling their school holiday plans, or borrowing money, or having to explain difficult financial circumstances to friends and colleagues when, understandably, they might prefer to keep that kind of private matter to themselves.

In the great tradition of the labour movement, the struggle of Alcoa workers and AWU members is not only about their livelihood and the wellbeing of their families and communities; it is also about the future wellbeing of all workers and all Australians. The men and women in the Alcoa workforce know that the jobs they occupy will be jobs for other workers in the future. They’re not prepared to see those jobs become fundamentally less secure for the next worker who holds that job and for the next family that relies on it for their sustenance and their dignity.

This motion should acknowledge and pay tribute to their commitment. I, and we, honour and pay tribute to that resolve and that commitment. If the member for Canning is serious about the plight of the Alcoa workers, he should be clear in calling out the practice of unilaterally terminating EBAs. He should be clear in calling on Alcoa to abandon that approach, guarantee the existing pay and conditions and bargain from that foundation of fairness with workers and their union on a good-faith basis.

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