Two hundred police moved in to break up picket lines on Melbourne’s Westgate bridge on April 15, where 39 workers have held out since December in a dispute with their employer.
Builder John Holland has now agreed to mediation with the unions in return for an end to the union pickets. The outcome was unclear as Solidarity went to press.
John Holland sacked the 39 members of the AMWU and CFMEU after they refused to accept below industry-standard pay rates and conditions. Holland refused to honour pay rates that had been negotiated with Civil Pacific Services, which subcontracted the work to Holland.
The builder also told the workers they would have to join a different union, the AWU, as a condition of employment on the project.
Unions believe the dispute is a key test of employers’ ability to slash wages at will and blame recession conditions.
John Holland is a major construction firm, which boasts of billions of dollars in contracts across the country. If it were able to get away with undercutting conditions, it could open the way for pay cuts on projects nation-wide.
Unions have maintained picket lines of up to 100 workers and supporters on the bridge to try to prevent the company bringing in scabs to work on the site.
This defiant stand has led to a hysterical offensive against the construction unions by the combined forces of the company, the police and the mainstream media.
John Holland has threatened to sue the unions under anti-strike laws, claiming they could face $10 million in damages.
The anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission has been surveilling the protests, looking for the chance to fine or prosecute picketers.
The police operation to break through the picket line came the day after a John Holland executive made a public appeal for “an improved level of support from Victoria Police”.
The media repeated claims circulated on the internet that unions were paying bikie gangs to staff the picket lines. There was no evidence produced for the claim.
The sort of defiance shown by the Westgate workers, and the strong support they have received, can stop employers slashing wages in the recession.
A picnic to support the workers will be held by the Western Suburbs Community and Unions Coalition on April 26 from 12pm at Yarraville Gardens, corner Hyde Street and Somerville Road
By James Supple

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