Australia’s trade union movement has swung behind 55 skilled brewery workers whose jobs were sacrificed in a cost-cutting bid by the nation’s largest beer producer, a subsidiary of global alcohol conglomerate SABMiller.
Unionists have protested loudly outside the Melbourne brewery of Carlton and United Breweries (CUB) for over three months after the company changed contractors employing its maintenance workforce, resulting in them being replaced by non-union labour on inferior wages and conditions.
As CUB suffers immense reputational damage in Australia to its beer brands, the takeover of SABMiller by the world’s biggest brewer AB InBev in October could be crucial to shifting the dispute. CUB is experiencing a management shake-up. It’s Chief Operating Officer Mike Walsh is leaving, following the departure of it’s head of operations Ari Mervis, who was appointed from London four years ago.
CUB’s packaged beer production has dropped by two thirds as non-union replacement workers cannot not keep packaging lines running properly.
Bars across Australia have turned off CUB beer taps in disgust with unionists donating to help the workers keep going at www.gofundme.com/CUBworkers.
About 15,000 union protesters brought Melbourne’s city heart to a standstill in early September by demanding the expert maintenance workers be reinstated on full wages and conditions, with the company’s tactics criticized by the Government of the state of Victoria.
But CUB management, including a British brewery chief directly appointed by SABMiller, have refused to budge.
Support has come in from affiliated brewing industry unions worldwide for the out-of-work fitters and electricians, members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU).
The ETU Secretary Troy Gray is visiting the US and has secured direct support of the Teamsters brewery and soft drink workers Local 812 in New York. Their officials have urged AB InBev to re-instate the 55 Australian workers at CUB once it takes control of SABMiller.
One of the workers reminded the rally crowd that SABMiller made a $4.4 billion worldwide profit last year but has paid minimal Australian tax and had no respect for our workers.
“We’re dealing with wages-slashing, anti-union, anti-Australian corporate greed,” he said.
“When I look around …I see hope, I see friendship strengthening, I see militant workers willing to dig the trenches as deep as we can to win this dispute.”
CUB have been condemned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) for its pretense that it has nothing to do with the dispute, claiming the dispute is between the former maintenance workers and its maintenance contractor.
This sham by companies of distancing themselves from the workers in their own plants by using a labour hire middleman has been a common tactic in Australia, but CUB was exposed when its maintenance contractor Programmed walked out of the brewery eight weeks into the conflict.
It left CUB in disarray, trying to find a new contractor or with the only sensible choice - re-employ the sacked 55 maintenance experts on their previous pay and conditions.
Australian independent, Labor and Green politicians are sympathetic to holding a Parliamentary Inquiry into labour hire practices and the need to reform Australia’s Fair Work Act, which this CUB dispute has showed up.
AMWU Victorian Secretary Steve Dargarvel said: “ Labour hire contractors should take note, they face losing millions of dollars if they put themselves in a position taking on the unions.”
CUB owns iconic Australian brands such as Victoria Bitter, Carlton Draught and Pure Blonde, plus brews SABMiller products including Grolsch, Peroni and Pilsner Urquell. It also brews Strongbow and Bullmer’s ciders.
The tactics of CUB are believed to have been endorsed by London-based headquarters of SABMiller, which has a notorious anti-union record across the world. But the could be a big management shake-out once InBev takes over, including at CUB in Australia.