The Hussmann Strike

In acts of solidarity, passing workers in cars and trucks blare horns and raise fists from cockpit windows. Steadfast is their commitment to seeing their demands met: a worker reveals to us that it is now day 8 of continuous striking. 

Deep in the industrial heartland of Sydney, workers stand along the opening gates to Hussmann – a Panasonic subsidiary based in Blacktown that specialises in commercial refrigeration manufacture.
Today is not an ordinary working day however: the workers are on strike. Tension permeates throughout as the emboldened workers spread out into evenly-spaced rows, each with their own flag bearing emblemage from union groups AMWU (Australian manufacturing workers Union) & CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union).

The demands are humble: a 3% increase to annual salary each year over the next 3 years – contrasting from the offered 2%, and a workplace that treats its workers with a basic level of humanity and respect. 

Arriving bosses heckled, a truck turned away. It is another day in standoff as Panasonic yet again refuses to come to the table with a fair pay rise.

A representative from the CFMEU in attendance rallies the workers for another long day ahead, speaking to continuing the fight for fair wages and treatment. The response is less enthusiastic- striking is really taxing and all the more so after 8 days of wet weather conditions.

Lunch is called at noon, and the workers briefly retreat to sit down and enjoy the very familiar sausage sizzle. Speaking to workers over break we come to learn that most of Hussman’s employees are extremely loyal to the company, with tenures of over 20 years. It is also brought to our attention that work continued throughout COVID-19 while management took leave or worked remotely, only adding insult to injury.

 Hussman employee Don kindly spoke to Sydney Anarcho-Communists over lunch in interview, filling out details about the ongoing strike and painting a vivid image about the continued struggle for a fair go: 

Tell us your name, and what your role is within the union and also on the work site.

My name is Don, I was a facilitator and I work in the paint shop area. The reason why we are striking now is because the EBA has run over, but the boss doesn’t want to resolve it. All they’re saying is take it or leave it, do what you want. And another reason why we are taking action is that people are getting bullied one after another, and there’s a few of us who have left already because they can’t take it anymore, you know what I mean? We did bring this up with the management but it’s all been covered up. And now we’re saying enough is enough, which is why we decided to take the action.

How long have you been out here, and what has it been like for the past days you’ve been here?

We’ve been out here for 8 days already. The first few days were really hard because we were in the rain, but we’ve stayed strong, and we will fight until we get what we want.  The bosses don’t even come out to talk to us or approach us.

Has there been any form of negotiation that the management has made with you yet?

No not yet.

Wow, so you anticipate being here for as long as it takes?

To me, yes. But other people I don’t know because we are all in a different situation of financial hardship. But I did tell our group that if you need help, if there’s anything that we can do please speak up. Every dollar counts, but talk to us first before you make any decision. 

How long have you worked here, and how has the workplace changed over time? And also have there been any past industrial actions that have been here at this worksite and what was the outcome? 

I’ve been here for 13 years now. We’ve had one industrial action before, probably about 6 years ago, but it was over quickly. There were a lot of us before, we had about 100 people at the worksite, but everything is going to China now, and things are getting worse and worse each day. We have to be multiskilled now, we have to do more jobs than what we used to do. The conditions are not like they were before. Before when I worked I had to use PPE, but when you ask for it now it takes time for them to order it for you. Whatever they order, they ask questions like why do you need it, they check the old equipment, and you have to show them the old one before you can get the new one. And this new management now is trying to bully people and trying to make things run quickly without paying – and it does work for them. A few people have left already because of that.

Are they trying to bully people in the union specifically? 

I used to be with the union for about 12 years, and then last year I decided to quit, because I wasn’t happy with the union delegate. The thing is, I have a problem with the boss, and the delegate is the one who backs up the boss. And he’s the one who brings the people from the floor upstairs as well. And that’s why I got cranky. I sent them an email that I quit, and I got a few phone calls from the union but then I said enough is enough I’m quitting. But then because this EBA is coming up I said to myself if I don’t go back in we aren’t going to be able to fight. And that’s why I made the decision to come back in and rejoin the union. 

Did the union have to be pressured from the members in order to take this strike action? 

Not really, we just voted on it. But honestly we never thought that we were going to be out here. But then at the end of the day, we have to do what we have to do. We don’t want to be out here, you know? But we have to do what we have to do because they forced us. It’s getting worse and worse each day, so there’s nothing else I can do.

Has there been any changes to your workplace over COVID?

No, not at all. Work is still coming in. But the funny thing is, when COVID started, all of the office people and managers were staying home. And us on the floor still had to come in and work normally. And when the second wave came they stayed home again, and we still had to come into work. They said we weren’t allowed to go upstairs, but sometimes they came downstairs to the floor without notifying us. On the floor we wear masks, do the right thing, keep our distance. But when they walk in, we don’t know where they’ve come from, if they’ve been exposed to hospitals or if they’ve made sure there’s nothing wrong with them before entering the workplace. But nothing has changed since COVID, the work is still coming, we’re still running things, nothings changed.

That’s interesting. Is there anything else that you want to say about the strike itself? 

We do need more people here. A few of us are struggling already, they want to give up, but we’ve been going shopping, providing food, making them happy and comfortable – we do what we can. But we need more people to hit them hard. 

In terms of support outside the workers, who has been down here? There were a couple of other union members from different unions like the CFMEU and the MUA, what’s been the reception and support from other unions? 

Mmm not really much. Honestly they just come and talk to us for a few minutes. And they say ‘alright guys stay strong’ and then they just disappear. That’s what they do all the time.

In terms of organising the strike, how did you go about it? What was your strategy? 

Mm it was okay, not bad. But we had to put in a lot of effort as well, doing this and that. But honestly, there’s a few of us who have to run a lot. If we don’t do anything people are just sitting out here getting tired, and they will give up. We could see that in the first few days, and that’s why we jumped in straight away. I have to put in a lot of my own pocket money, like for example this morning we had to dip into our own savings to get enough food for people, you know, I have to sacrifice that to keep them happy. 

So you don’t have any form of strike fund or fundraising money, it’s just literally you guys out here?

It’s just us out here. And we heard that the union is going to help us out for financial hardship, but for me it’s not the point. It’s not about the money – it’s about the fact that if we don’t do anything we will lose, and then the bosses will just do whatever they want. We have to stand for our rights right now, you know. And I try to do that myself, and a few other people here, but like I said – at the end of the day, majority wins. So we just do our best. But at least I’m happy doing what I’m doing – I don’t go home and regret what I should’ve done. At least we’ve given it a go, who cares what happens. 

That resilience is awesome. We were talking to Shane from the MUA and he was talking about getting a solidarity network up and running for pickets and it sounds like this is the type of thing that should happen here! Like actually getting an organised group of people to come down and support you, whether it’s through running lunch or having more bodies on the picket line so workers can go home and do what they need to do. That would be really valuable.

Yeah because what we worry about is at the end of the day we have to go back inside to deal with them. That’s why sometimes they don’t want to go too far. But for you guys if you stand there and stop the trucks, no problem. But if we stop the truck and we go back in, it’s a different story. So that worries the workers as well. But stopping the trucks is the best thing to do. I don’t know why in the last few days no trucks have been coming in, but the first week they kept coming in and in, and if we had you guys here at the beginning it would have been different. But we go through that, it doesn’t matter. Like I said, it’s not winning or losing, we just do what we have to do, life goes on. 

Why do you think the trucks aren’t coming? Do you think they’ve stopped work, or do you think they are trying something else?

Well, no one is working there at the moment. Because the problem is we always do the work  1 or 2 weeks in advance, and before this strike happened, they pushed out a lot of work for us as well. So now for these few weeks all the work is already done, they probably set it up like this. But then who is doing the next job, you know what I mean? They need people to do the next job for them but we’re out here, so maybe that’s why the trucks aren’t coming in. That’s the reason. 

Could you repeat the demands of what you’re picketing for?

All we want is a fair go. We don’t ask for much. Things go up every day. Treat us fair, we respect that. At the end of the day we are all human, we have a family to look after. Show us some respect, we’ll pay it back. But they don’t, so we have to do what we have to do.

What’s the % wage increase that you’re asking for?

We asked for 3%.

And what are they offering? 

2%. If they move up to 2.5%, we are happy to take that, but if we just take 2% there’s no negotiating. It’s laying down. But with the EBA, they’ve been pushing us down and down for the last few EBAs already, and we just took it. Until we said no, not anymore. They wanted to put KPIs in the agreement as well, among a lot of other things. But we said no, that’s off the table.

And what about workplace safety? Are there any issues around workplace safety that you’re concerned about? 

Not really, because there’s not much work left, and not too many people. Like I said we did have a talk about safety, but that was it. They talked, made a sign, but they didn’t fix anything. They say they’ll let the boss know what happened, but why don’t they talk to us when things happen? That’s how it is at this workplace right now. It’s gone down a lot. 

Thanks so much.