There is a saying that goes around unions – “if you don’t fight, you lose”.
And there is the flipside of that saying – that if you get together, stick to your guns and fight as one, then you can win.
This was the experience of ETU NSW delegate Steve and his workmates at Kone elevators as they fought a protected battle with management at the company to bring their pay into line with the rest of the industry and the rest of the country.
“The original offer of 12 percent over three year might have sounded generous, but the reality was that we were a long way behind the rest of the industry and even behind Kone in other states,” Steve said.
Kone workers in Queensland and WA were up to $10 per hour better off, and the only place where wages were lower in the lift industry was Adelaide.
Morale was low at the company and staff were leaving to go to other companies where the wages were in line with the rest of the industry.
“We were surprised the company couldn’t see that morale was in the gutter,” Steve said. “Everyone was unhappy. Even people whose main concern wasn’t money were struggling with a lack of training and support.”
So when they went into bargaining after rejecting the initial offer in October last year, the company were under the illusion that they could get the deal they wanted quickly, with minimum objections from their workforce.
“We have nearly 100 percent union membership in the service and construction department. The market is good and the company is doing well. We knew that this might be our best and possibly last chance to get up to industry standard.”
"We always pay for our increases"
This was not Steve’s first rodeo – he and many of his workmates had taken industrial action many times in the past.
“We always pay for our pay increases,” he said. “One way or another. If we don’t strike we lag behind and get ripped off, so we have take the hit if we want to get anything decent, every time.”
Steve and his workmates had been here before, and they knew that if they stuck together and acted as one, the company couldn’t run them over.
Negotiations stalled when the company wouldn’t come to 16 percent over three years.
“They kept saying ‘There’s only so much money in the bucket’,” Steve said. “But at the same time they’d just thrown out a $2 per hour raise out of no-where to keep people from leaving to other companies, so we knew the bucket couldn’t be that empty.”
After the company refused to come to the table and participate meaningfully in a conciliation process led by Fair Work, it was time to take action.
AMWU and ETU members together in the maintenance and construction divisions went out for six days initially. Following that, they struck for four days a week out of the seven-day roster.
Kone management responded by putting their own agreement out to a secret ballot.
“The managers seriously thought their agreement was going to get up if they ran it this way. They thought that the bargaining committee was feeding people bad information and the union was trying to stir things up for its own purposes. They thought people didn’t want to be on strike and that they’d do anything to make it end.”
But they were wrong. The vote went down spectacularly, with more than 70 percent of the Kone workers voting against it. After that, the company changed its tune.
“It was a Thursday arvo that they vote went down. The very next morning, those of us on the bargaining committee got an email from HR asking to set up a meeting to settle the dispute.”
They went in asking for 17.5 percent over three years. The company came back with 15. In the end the workers got their number, but over three and a half years instead. The planned seven-day stoppage from the following Monday would be cancelled, and the agreement put to a vote.
“In the lift on the way out of there I looked over to one of the other blokes on the bargaining committee and said ‘Bob, we’ve won’,” Steve said.
The Old and the New
There are a few things that Steve credits with getting the company to agree to bring them up to where they should be. The first and most important is the strength on the ground – the almost uniform union membership in the two departments and the discipline and co-operation of members. These had been honed and improved over previous industrial campaigns.
But there were also some new things. Increased involvement for members and delegates in the legal side of the debate gave them a greater control over the process, and the use of social media to establish counter-narratives to the company’s official line were both vital to the victory.
“We were very happy with how the union officials supported us,” Steve said. “Everyone on the bargaining committee came along to the Fair Work hearings and we were able to put our views to the Commissioner in our own words.”
“We also found that conducting marches and mass meetings and sharing photos and videos on social media sent a message not just to Kone, but to the companies that did business with them. It made the management keen to settle the dispute because they didn’t like the appearance to potential business partners that they didn’t have their house in order.”
“In the end, we fought and we won.”