265 day Boeing strike takes its toll

Workers at Boeing in Australia have spent 265 days on the picket line over a collective wage bargaining agreement.

Submitted by Steven. on February 27, 2006

The Maitland Mercury spoke to them:

Peter Farrar is a weapons expert, highly qualified to ensure Australia's F18 Hornet fighters can shoot straight and their missiles fire properly.

Yet for 265 days he has become an expert at crossword puzzles - and doing lots and lots of housework.

His colleague Doug Fernandes is an aircraft engineer who makes sure the fighters' air frames are in order and that their undercarriages are sound.

But for the past 265 days, Mr Fernandes has cared for his tropical fish, made a letter box - and done lots and lots of housework.

The two men have much in common: they both live in Thornton, are married with mortgages and they loved their jobs at Boeing Australia - until they became involved in a dispute about having individual contracts as opposed to a collective agreement.

Both men also believe they are among the lucky ones of the last 25 Boeing Australia workers to leave their picket line.

"I was in the RAAF for 20 years before I left and I wanted to settle in Newcastle," Mr Farrar said.

"With my job experience, I couldn't get anything outside military aerospace work and Boeing Australia seemed a good opportunity."

For three years, Mr Farrar said he was employed on an Australian Workers Union workplace agreement before the company put him on an individual contract.

"We were given pay increases and I suppose a lot of people were taken in by it," he said.

"A lot of us were ex-military people who were unaware of how the system worked."

Mr Farrar said it was only later that he and others explored the chances of working under a collective agreement.

About 40 Boeing Australia workers then manned a picket line outside the RAAF base at Williamtown and with the dispute apparently winding down, only 25 are left.

"My wife has been in total support from the first day and I am very fortunate to have her support," Mr Farrar said.

"Our finances were our biggest concern, but my wife is working and we don't have a family.

"So many of my colleagues have been in a much tougher position with children to look after.

"I also had a RAAF pension so we managed to scrape along with our mortgage."

Like other workers on the picket line, Mr Farrar thought the dispute would be over in a few weeks.

But as the time grew longer, he found the time spent with his colleagues on the picket line would give him tremendous support.

"Sometimes I would wake in the morning and ask myself 'What the hell I am I doing?'

"But then I would see the guys on the picket line and I realised that what we were doing was so worthwhile.

"Boredom was the biggest problem. I have worked for 25 years, from the time I was 16," he said.

"But I believed in what we were doing. I would spend five days on the picket line and every second weekend there."

He said several colleagues had gone for job interviews.

He knew of some who had gone to places like Saudi Arabia.

"But I wouldn't even consider something like that - I am allergic to bullets," he said.

So he and his wife knuckled down to a Spartan life until the situation was resolved.

"A couple of people have gone to pieces at times. Everyone has a breaking point," Mr Ferrar said.

"But none of this was ever worth losing a house over."

Doug Fernandes said that if he had children, he might have been guilty about his decision to fight for a collective bargaining agreement.

"I believe I am very fortunate to be involved in this dispute with a loyal wife who is working, and not having a family to worry about," Mr Fernandes said.

"I used to work for a Western Australia company on a collective agreement but I came to Boeing on an individual contract," he said.

"But I believe an individual contract locks workers into a system where they have no bargaining power.

"I believe everyone should have freedom of expression, to say what they think about their working conditions."

An active man, Mr Fernandes spent time on the picket line exercising whenever he could.

"I am not used to being idle. At home, I made a first aid box for our house, a letter box and a stand for our tropical fish," he said.

Did any single moment in those long 265 days stand out for those two men?

The aircraft engineers exchanged glances and were silent for several seconds.

"It was support from the community that blew us away," Mr Farrar said.

"We remember a car stopping one day at the picket line and a person gave us $5 from a Toronto man, with his address.

"The next day we rang him up to thank him only to be told we had missed him.

"That man had died of cancer - on the very day he had given us his last $5.

"You know, you see something like that and it stays with you forever.

"It was worth so much to that man to give us that money.

"So to continue fighting had to be worth it to us too."

The strike by workers from Boeing's Williamtown maintenance facility has represented the battle for all workers rights under the Howard Government, according to union leaders and politicians.

While the Federal Government's sweeping industrial relations reforms have not yet come into effect, it was suggested throughout the Williamtown campaign that Boeing's refusal to offer it's workers a collective agreement was a preview of things to come.

The message was echoed again this week by Premier Morris Iemma during his visit to Maitland.

NSW industrial relations minister John Della Bosca, who pushed for the Boeing dispute to be heard by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission, said the Williamtown situation was what Prime Minister John Howard hoped Australian workers would "passively accept".

Mr Della Bosca said 91 per cent of employer lock-outs in Australia occurred under the Federal Industrial Relations system.

Newcastle Trades Hall secretary Gary Kennedy believed the Boeing workers were "at the forefront of the battle for rights at work", while Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Greg Combet predicted more disputes of this nature would occur under the new industrial relations laws.