Whither the Trade Union: Interview with a laid off meat-worker

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~Worker Inquiry~

The following is an interview with my mate Tony, who over the years I have known him has come to be more and more critical of the trade union, but from a perspective of militant worker organising and solidarity. Since Tony would rant a lot about this anyway, I asked if he’d be ok doing an interview so others could get a glimpse of what goes on in the meat industry (for a project at the time, The Grind). The following was transcribed from a recorded interview in Kangaroo Point back in late 2012.

My name’s Tony and today I’m just going to go through a few things with you today about my life in the meat industry. I left school at 15 and got a job at a butcher shop. This was in the 80s around 83, 84 in New Zealand – then I came to Australia when i left the butcher shop and started working for Thomas Borthwick and Sons. They had sheds in NZ as well as in Australia. I worked there in south western Victoria – it was a pretty big shed, we used to do beef, mutton and lamb. That’s when I discovered how strong a union culture could be – there were much better conditions than I’d previously experienced.

We worked on piece rate – which as you know is tally – you cut your tally and you go  home – basically the quicker you work the quicker you go home, which all of us loved. Then that was all well and fine for many years. We got up around the 90s and the Liberal government come into power in Victoria and all hell broke loose. Borthwick’s was bought out by a company called AHM – Australian Meat Holdings- which is now owned by a Brazilian company called JBS Friboi. I still say to this day the destruction of the meat industry in Australia began when AMH started buying all the sheds they can buy – they pretty well own the majority of the sheds. The funny thing was that Australian Meat Holding’s frontal piece was John Elliot who just happened to be a big player in the Liberal party..

This move changed everything around – I’ll give you one example. Our forefathers in the industry worked hard for the lappo. A lappo is basically where you work for an hour and you have a 5 minute break – time for a cigarette or to sharpen your knife, rest your hand as well whatever the case may be it gives you a break, that’s the main idea so there’s  less carpal tunnel injuries from repetitive stress and stuff like that.  Now  the industry has deteriorated that much and the union has lost all its clout with companies now wanting you to work for an hour and 30 minutes before a break, then your next break will be your smoko. The smoko, or your lunch break, goes for 20 minutes and was always a paid break.

Now they’ve extended the hours so that although you work an 8 hour day you don’t get paid for your break so in actual fact it’ll say 7.4 or 7.6 hours. Also when we used to be on tally you’d have a break at a set time – even if there were only two or three bodies of beef to go you’d still have a break because  it was a paid break, then you’d do the last three and go home, if you understand what I’m saying.

Now what they do now is if you only have 3 to go and it comes on break time you finish them off and get told to go home. Its’ terrible. To get your 8 hours now you have to work the extra 20 minutes to pay for your lunch break which our forefathers fought hammer and tong for – to have a paid work break, now you got nothing.

Back when I started If you went to work and there was for some unknown reason there was no work for you, you used to get paid waiting time – whether it be a mechanical failure or an electrical fault – no electricity or anything like that you would get paid waiting time. Now they write some ridiculous thing on your clock card – L.O.W – Lack Of Work. And then subtract that from your daily wage.

The companies are so tight and because the unions have sold out they don’t support you anymore – simple stuff like that we’d be out the gate back in the day. There’d be action straight away. Now with a lot of companies if they decide they’re going to change something – the shop steward or the shed delegate doesn’t come down and tell ya “oh the companies thinking of doing this and we’ll put it to a vote” or anything like that – they just come down after the fact! It’s done! The industry has gone downhill so much its quite disheartening actually because its been the love of my life for 30 years. I love this kind of work.

We had many strikes around that time in different sheds throughout Victoria and Queensland, with or without the union. We’d swap between lamb season in Victoria and come up here to Queensland for beef.  The liberals had a mob called Trouble-shooters Available which were a mob of semi-skilled scabs that would go in and try to do your job while you were on a picket line so we struggled to keep them out by force to save our jobs and the union culture was very strong then. Strong barricades and strong picket lines.

The union just started becoming weaker and weaker – both sides of government but especially the Liberals took away the rights of workers and the union as well. The union had less clout- all of a sudden it wasn’t worth bugger all. At the end of the day you’re paying so many bucks a week and at the end of the day when the company wanted to sack you and it wasn’t really fair, well, we used to go on strike straight away to get old matey’s job back. But now you have to go through industrial relations and unfair dismissals – so on and so forth. We used to sort that out ourselves. We’d walk right up to em and say look we think you’ve sacked matey for no reason – there was a real culture of solidarity. All these tribunals destroyed that – what you used to fight together you now fought on your own through lawyers, legal avenues etc. Now when there’s an issue we hear straight back from management, ‘oh nah we’re not giving it to ya’. Why not? ‘Because we’ve passed legislation that you Have to work’. Now there’s no difference between labour and liberal – it’s all about the market.

Y’know, as we used to call each other – ‘Comrades’ –There was a great mateship in the industry – how you goin brother, yea comrade and all that – Ah ya capitalist swines, you know. They were always talking about bloody capos’ and everyone was full-on about it.

When Jeff Kenneth took over in Victoria he just put the breaks on everything and if you didn’t like it, it was stiff shit – his cronies Michael Croger and Trouble-Shooters Available – the same situation happened on the docks with Patrick Stevedores. The painters and dockers had gone out on strike and he’s said fuck you, we’ll get someone else to do it. He sacked about 9000 people from the public sector and put a whole bunch of painters n dockers in jail. He shook up the joint something shocking. You can take a bit out of Chopper Read actually. Stuff like that happened – gangs and bikies – people were hired to bash strikers in jail, no word of a lie. Some of the leaders in the union movement got a fair bit of a touch up in Pentridge, where I actually spent a fair bit of time.

Shed delegates also used to work beside other workers in the boning room – the boner was the shed delegate or shop steward. But now you find they’re doing Quality Assurance jobs and they’re in positions where they don’t actually do any work and they get the golden handshake off the company. I’ve noticed they’re usually in quality assurance or they might be the Occupational health and safety rep that also happens to be shed delegate, which to me is a bit of a conflict of interest – because one part they’re working for the company when they’re supposed to be working for the worker – so which one are they working for if you know what I mean. Like we all understand that at the end of the day you have to make a good product we understand that and take pride in that, but it has to be without jeopardising the worker.

Plus another thing too – when the chain got slowed down and everything like that – that costed people jobs. Because when you finish cutting you’re on a knife hand. Right. Once you finish cutting and that last carcass has passed you, that used to be it – you go and wash your gear and you go home. Now they require in a lot of places a bloody slaughter-man, a boner or a slicer to clean their area which was absolutely unheard of – that used to be the labourers job – that’s cutting the labourer out of work but now they want you to hose down or pick up a bit of fat or something like that .

I was devastated. I was there one time when old mate said, ‘Oi, where are you goin?’ I said I’m going home mate that’s my job finished that’s me last cut I’m packin up n hooroo. He said ‘oh no you gotta help clean up’.  I said when did this come in? He said ‘what?’  I said when did that come in mate. I said an A-grade butcher doesn’t clean the floors that’s the labourers job – that’s cutting out two or three blokes. If you’re cleaning your area and you’ve got a boning room with 30 odd people and everyone’s cleaning their own little square at the end of the day that’s putting out hours of work for the labourers. It’d help them get a much better wage as most of this is overtime. It’s giving them those extra dollars.

The funny thing is that compared to 20 years ago, in a lot of cases I reckon the number of carcasses going through have been less, but there’s more precision cuts. I don’t know how many actual sheds there are where people are on actual piece rate anymore. Now there’s a standard wage for the day from this workplaces agreement shit. What they’ve done not just in the meat industry but in a lot of other industries they said righto we’re gonna give you for example $250 per day rain, hail or shine, weekends and everything and take all your penalty rates off you – that’s gonna be your set rate. But when they do that they pay you more but then do this even timing where people go to work for two weeks and then have two weeks off. But you don’t get paid for your two weeks off!  Then come to the end of the year you don’t get any holidays. People thought it’d be great but at the end of the day you don’t get as much cause you’re not working the other time. You work your 8 hours and after 8 hours you should be on penalty.

My argument is back in the day when you were on tally break, say you were a solo slaughterman and you had to cut 80 sheep a day for your tally. Well if you cut anymore that was overtime. If it only took you 3 and a half hours to cut 80 sheep and you cut over you got paid double. You used to get paid waiting time, overtime, bonuses at the end of the week. But they framed it in a way that made it sound better.

A lot of people think Tally was bad but if you couldn’t cut tally after a certain time they’d find you an alternative job – we were that strong they couldn’t sack you so there was no dramas. I used to go to work at quarter to 7 when I was working at the bull chain in Portland – I’d be at the pub by 10 o’clock having a beer! The bull was only slash cut because its 2nd rate meat – by the way unfortunately that’s your 100% Australian beef that goes into McDonalds. All the really good meat doesn’t go into McDonalds that’s rubbish, specialist cuts go overseas.

The way I’ve seen it they slowed the chain down that much to produce a better looking product but the quality of work has gone down the shithole. People aren’t happy anymore. They’re sitting around, they don’t rotate – some people do the same cut day in day out 5 days a week. Work is slower and the quality of life is worse. They’ve taken everything off you. Sometimes they wind the chain up though and you are working very fast and for longer. I don’t know how it’s ever been calculated because it doesn’t make sense. The roo processing plant – I’ve  been told that in the skinning room there’s about 12 people, there’s 2 that are on piece rate and the rest are on labourers rate – you can’t tell me that two blokes are doing everything by themselves. What are the other fellas doing?

I’m laid off now looking for work, and I’ve been told I now have to go on a trial period at a lesser wage. I said a try out? I said you’re kidding. You’re only cutting 8 or 900, I used to cut 1400 mate I’m pretty well right I don’t need a fucken trial period. How do companies justify paying a couple of people piece rate and others hourly rates? Others don’t have piece rate at all. You could go to work one day, cut for example 900, and then the next day you go there and cut 1400 – you get paid the same wage either way. To me it doesn’t make any sense.

Most of the issues in the sheds at the moment are around driving down wages and conditions. The major issue is the company trying to get the job done as cheaply as possible.  If they can avoid paying penalty rates they will. When you’re employed you have a hook number – 1,2 right up to however many A grade butchers are on the chain. After that you’ll have your labourers and stuff like that. When layoffs did used to happen – and they didn’t happen easily i’ll tell you that – they happened to the last hook number but now they can lay off whoever they want – especially the outspoken people.  I’ve been stood down. Back in the day I wouldn’t have. Nothing has changed for the better.

We used to get union letters all the time, every now and again you’ll see a notice put up. You get some correspondence sent to your house, but its been ages since there’s been an actual meeting the way we used to have. We used to have stop work meetings – we’d all go and sit down and discuss what the company wanted and what our approach would be. I haven’t sat down for one of them for years.

There’s still a culture on the ground though. We all have a yarn ‘this is fucken shit and rah rah” but the  foreign workers are too scared and won’t come into it. They don’t want to discuss better conditions or anything like that. Some of them have Visa issues and all that shit too.

With a lot of the older meatworkers they’ve become disgruntled, many have pulled up n gone into other industries. Now there’s a lot of immigrants. Maybe if you got some of these migrants a little bit more active in what a workers movement can do that could build things again, cause they don’t give a fuck mate, they’ll just work. I try to tell em that sticking together is a good thing and that we have to do it. They don’t know that you should be getting paid this or that – they just accept conditions no matter how shit – I hate to say it but a lot of them will work for a bowl of rice and a pair of thongs. Understandably they’re trying to make life in a new country – they’ll work for minimum wage and don’t give a fuck. And the boss knows that and uses it against you. Say you got a couple of outspoken people like myself – they try to ween outspoken people out. No opinion, just shut your mouth.  The worst thing too now is it’s not compulsory to join the union anymore. Christ yeah we pressure them in don’t worry about that. I’d say Oi what’s ya bloody name – join ya fucken union. One of the migrants would say “no I don’t pay money for nothing”.  I’d say nahh look you can get a paint job on ya car, a holiday for your wife, there’s even hairdressers – your misses can get a fucken haircut. A lot of them from Laos for example have been through war and I’ve got heaps of em to join the union. They get a lot of respect in the industry. I told em what union organising’s all about – I said ‘fair’ do you understand ‘fair’? The one that refused at first – He’s a top bloke now.  Because at the start they had this poor fella from Laos on $7 an hour. I said you’re bloody kidding me. I said to a mate of mine how come this poor cunt’s only getting this much an hour. And they said they must have him on trial period. Taken back, I said a fucken trial period? He’s been here bloody 6 months longer than I have! I said he should be on top dollar, he’s nearly as good a cutter as me doing the same job. Same happens with some of the Koreans and Africans.

UNION MEETINGS

Occasionally now people will go straight up to management and say oh look we’re not happy with this what’s going on here outside of the union structure. That would’ve never happened before because you would’ve went through the formal avenue – you woulda said hey Jimmy can you go and talk – what’s the go with this its not bloody cricket can you work out why this is going on with me rate being dropped etc – you went to the shed delegate.

Being a union official is now a fulltime job in itself – you got shop stewards, every particular area has their fella but then the shed delegate is the union boss of the whole shed. He gets paid by the union as well as the company as far as I know. The shop stewards, they need to be more active in going around saying is everyone happy with what’s going on. The shop steward doesn’t do that anymore – the role’s completely changed and flipped upside down. Strange to say, I’m a unionist but have no time for the union.

Like I was saying before our forefathers fought for so many things. We used to take stop work breaks all the time, for example when the meat was too cold to cut. You do that nowadays and the company will take that time off ya – they’ll call it Lack of Work or take that time off you for their mistake. The idea with management is you’ve come here to work – if you’re not working we’re not paying you regardless of if its our fault, which 9 out of ten times it is (like a mechanical failure). In a lot of sheds now you will not get paid waiting time – they will not pay you waiting time.

Our idea is we’re here to work, we’ve come here too work – you have to pay us waiting time. Now it’s just like there’s lack of work. For example last week I worked until half past 9, around 10 o’clock and I was told its time for you to knock off. I said you’re kidding me – ‘yeah you have to knock off there’s no work’. I said right, fair dinkum.

So you get up, you travel nearly an hour and a half to get to work, you go there and work 2 and a half hours then you’re told to go home. Then you get told you’re stood down for a day or two, then you’re sitting there going what’s goin on, you ring em up and then you get told there’s no work for 2 or 3 weeks.

The bosses now prefer their workforce to be casual permanent so they don’t have to pay you holiday pay, they don’t have to pay you anything, whereas if it was permanent like the old days, like back in Borthwicks days-  if a situation like this arose you could just use some of your holiday pay to get by but you don’t have any now. Because they reckon ‘we actually pay you more’ – they pay you more and you don’t get anything! No security, no holidays.

On the floor this is one of the main issues that gets talked about – the main talk on the kill floor is about the companies taking away penalty rates, not giving people opportunity to work on public holidays to get that extra overtime, working conditions with companies being tight arses and cost cutting, the main talk is how scabby the joints are. Everyone says they can’t believe these pricks lately you know

In today’s climate people are reluctant to organise and start industrial action because people are so insecure – but it wouldn’t happen in the first place if people had’ve held staunch in the 90s in response to AMH and the liberal government.

Ways forward?

Well I think the only way to do it is to one time have a sort of a mass walk out – not just one shed – all the sheds together like a general strike. We need to rebuild that culture of sticking together – back when the union movement was stronger we used to have a butchers picnic – it was like a union holiday for butchers down in Victoria every year – we used to have that and that was a big family day, jumping castles for the kids, little competitions, beers and barbeques and you’d be discussing ‘oh yeah this is what’s going on in this shed’, and this is what’s going on here and there but now there’s nothing close to that that happens – there’s no opportunities outside of work. We used to have all sorts of things like that – monthly barbeques with a keg of beer, there’d be people from the mutton killing floor, there’d be people from the beef killing floor. You would’ve never worked with em but you could chat and meet people across the industry. Find out what’s going on, compare conditions. You’d discuss ‘oh yeah what’s going on on your side – oh they’ve got this one bloke doing change over and he’s actually physically lifting every sheep’. And you’d go ‘What! Youse can’t do that, that’s bullshit he’ll end up breaking down, getting a broken back’, you know.

That’s another thing – they all say they’re for safety and all that shit but these health and safety things are just to cover their arses. At the end of the day you look at some of the jobs people do and that’s just out the window, that’s just a crock of shit. You know they get you to watch a bloody safety induction and then what you watch goes straight out the window because you start doing stuff that they till you not to do cause that the only way to do it.

In a big park mate we’d be there having a yarn, some of the big bosses of the union would turn up and old mate he’d have a van and they’d have knives and steels and booklets of where you could get cheap types get ya cars fixed, where you could get loans and finance, all that there was that many things you know. You’d get this card with all these reciprocals, you could go to a motel and because you’re a union member you’d get 20% off. You could go on holiday, go to Corowa or Rubber Glen bowls club or something and you’d get buy one meal get one free – coupons n all that you know. But back then the coupons were secondary to the action you know, now it’s like it’s the other way round!

There are attempts by us workers to organise each other. We used to have a social club and we were recently trying to get a social club off the ground together at this last Brisbane shed. We were trying to get one going and had full support. We approached the company and asked if they’d take money out of people pay and hang on to it, but they said nah that’s out of the question because that’s part of our administration costs or something so they wouldn’t do it. How bloody hard’s that – it’s a wonder why everyone’s got a gutso. Take $2 out for the social club that becomes your opportunity to have your organising discussions. That becomes the nucleus of your solidarity. That’s how you get people together – at get togethers. So you have the social club right and you think righto every month we’ll do beers, go fishing, have a kids day or whatever and then you get everyone together and righto what are the issues. Any issues in your area, boom boom boom – you bring them to management all together. And you have a resolution process. Give em within reason but if it isn’t resolved well then action should be taken.

When people are disgruntled and they gotta keep battlin and toilin on, turning up to fucken work and getting shit on by a company with little union help what can you do? I can’t just blame the union but they’ve really become detached and don’t have that power on the floor like they used to do. It can be a fickle industry but i tell ya its a hell of alot more fickle when ya unions got no balls. I think that’s covered the lot mate, cheers.

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For a good look at the meat industry I highly recommend the book Making a Killing: The political economy of animal rights by Bob Torres, which looks at the meat industry more from the perspective of its damage to workers, not just typical vegan consumption arguments.

Also recommended:
Beasts of Burden: An attempt to rethink the separation between animal liberationist and communist politics

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