Meatworkers have enjoyed a history and a culture of unionism
This has been built over many years and has continued from generation to generation. Work in meatworks and associated workplaces has always been physically hard, dangerous and skilful. Without the strength of organized labour it would undoubtedly be more dangerous and have stayed poorly paid as well.
Most of the conditions and wages many now enjoy were the result of the unity and industrial action (strikes etc) of workers over many years before them. All the major sheds through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties were one hundred percent unionised and were therefore able to put up a united front against powerful employers who would otherwise have exploited them. In Victoria particularly, the AMIEU led the way in the establishment of industrial awards, which many now take for, granted. Things like equal pay for women, long service leave, Superannuation, redundancy, annual leave, sick leave and public holidays were established and developed by the union, backed up with united industrial pressure.
The demise of many of the large meatworks came about for two main reasons. Firstly the advent of live sheep exports, which undermined the employment base of the small stock processing industry, and secondly many of the large processing companies such as Angliss, Borthwicks, Smorgans and V.I.M.C.O. refused to make the necessary capital expenditure to modernize their works up to the required export standards.
This in turn led to a proliferation of smaller less organized works. Some of these remain without proper union organisation. Ararat, Swan Hill, Tongala and Warrnambool are examples of these. Conditions and wages in these abattoirs and others have fallen behind those that now have Enterprise Agreements based on the old Victorian Meatworks and Bi Products Award, which was established on the back of the workers' efforts in the sheds that were in the VMA in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. There are now huge differentials in wages earned between unionised sheds and non-unionised sheds.
Some of the conditions enjoyed by those with Registered Agreements include:
13 rostered days off per year
Pro rata long service leave after 5 years on termination, or 7½ years if you resign.
17.5 % loading on Annual Leave.
At least 30 weeks make up pay for WorkCover recipients.
Redundancy up to 26 weeks.
10 days sick leave with the right to be paid for any unclaimed sick leave.
These are only a few examples of the difference between entitlements in fully organized union factories and those that are not.
Other Advantages of Being in the Union
As well as the obvious difference in wages and conditions between Union sheds and others, there are many benefits from being in the Union along with all your workmates.
You can have effective representation and advice if you are subject to discrimination or unfair dismissal. You will get free advice on WorkCover, leave accruals and termination pay.
The Union has its own Superannuation fund that was established in 1980, long before there was any legislative entitlement to Superannuation. Being a Union Fund means that members have immediate access to information on their investments and can check to see if employers are making their payments correctly and on time.
If your workplace is fully unionised you can elect your own delegates and Occupational Health and Safety representatives who are entitled to paid leave whilst they are trained on a meat industry-specific training course, organized through the AMIEU and Victorian Trades Hall.
Once fully unionised, if your workplace is large, you can build a Shop Committee to co-ordinate the Union's activities at your workplace on behalf of the members.
The Union has five full-time organisers; Jim Brittain (Warrnambool Office) Laurie Burley, Collin Ross and Bob Savine, as well as Branch Secretary Graham Bird and Assistant Secretary Paul Conway. The fifth organiser is the full time Occupational Health and Safety and WorkCover Officer Gwynnyth Evans. These officials are available to assist members.
The Union also has legal firms that provide advice and representation when the Union deems it appropriate. In Melbourne Maurice, Blackburn, Cashman have a working relationship with the Union and in the Western District Stringer Clark have offices in Portland, Warrnambool, Hamilton and Ararat, and in Myrtleford Wangaratta and Wodonga, Nevin Lenne & Gross acts on behalf of our members when required.
The Union can offer many tales of exploitation, harassment, discrimination, underpayment, bullying and even criminal assault against workers by their employers. Being in the Union will not in itself prevent these things happening, although the frequency of such incidents is vastly lower in fully unionised workplaces. What being in the Union will do is give you advice, protection and the ability to stand up to your boss if he or she tries to take advantage of the employer/employee relationship in any way.
The balance of power in this relationship has always been with the employer. In recent years attacks on workers' rights by both Federal and Victorian Liberal/National Party Governments have seen the balance even more heavily weighted to the boss. It is more important now than ever to join the Union and talk to your workmates about doing the same. You will be amazed what can be achieved in your workplace if every worker at your works joins the Union.