YEARS before he started work making paint at what was then a Dulux plant in Clayton, Dennis Kimball knew it was a good place to work. That was the word around the traps: the conditions were good and they looked after you.
A lot has changed since. The plant is owned by a foreign multi-national – the Pittsburgh Paint Group – and the Global Financial Crisis created a harder focus on costs, and the pressure stepped up even more when the soaring Australian dollar undermined international competitiveness.
Australians worry about the demise of manufacturing and Dennis understands why. Manufacturing supplies good jobs, like his. But just as there are fewer of those jobs, the workers whose skills make them good jobs must struggle to maintain their conditions.
In recent years the proportion of United Voice members in manufacturing has declined, as manufacturing itself has declined. Manufacturing members, however, still comprise around 12 per cent of the union and they are among the highest earning members, and the one broad group that earns above-average incomes. They understand that, and they appreciate it.
“We are on very good money, the conditions are second to none, but we have worked for that and earned it with quality output,” says Dennis, pictured above, outside the plant.
“We know it’s giving us a good living. Over the years it’s been a great place to work. Generally health wise it’s pretty good. The place has unlimited personal protection equipment.
“The thing is people in this place do care about what they do. We know if we are not making paint we are all out of a job.”
Dennis Kimball has seen the manufacturing staff numbers whittle down steadily. A redundancy program in October 2013 trimmed 20 full time workers, who were later replaced by 10 casual workers.
It seems that gradually the permanent full time highly skilled workers are being replaced by contract workers. This is part of a trend of increasingly insecure employment seen in Australia in recent years. The strategy is not always successful however.
“We can see what’s going to happen in the future,” says Dennis. “They will continue to attack our conditions. But since those 20 voluntary redundancies, we have not stopped having overtime.
“We had a 10 week strike three years ago and the business really struggled. They wanted to take 43 per cent of our wages and conditions. Management thought they could step in, but they found it harder than they expected to do our jobs."
PPG has plants in 38 countries including Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. It is the biggest coatings company worldwide supplying architectural, marine and industrial finishes.
Paul Cooper, an 18-year veteran at Clayton says the contractors who in recent years were used to replace skilled workers have not stayed long.
“Of the original 40 or so they have had here, only two are left. The company knows they struggle to keep good workers with what they are paying (the contractors).
“We get the work out. It’s good quality, and without people suffering injuries. It’s a very diverse plant. We take pride in what we do.”
For the workers at PPG survival is about skills and quality control. “Our biggest competitor is PPG itself,” says Dennis. “They have factories in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and India. That seems to be our biggest competitor.
“Price-wise we might be vulnerable, but we are up there on quality and delivery times keep us ahead of most of those places.
Among permanent staff the plant is fully unionised. Generations of manufacturing workers built their strength through their unions and the benefits show in jobs like these. Workers here improved their conditions through strong campaigns 20 years ago, says Dennis. The benefits continue to be felt.
For members of United Voice, who include service industry employees such as security guards and cleaners, these manufacturing positions set a benchmark for employment conditions. Their numbers are growing and their work is essential, but less well paid. Their aim is to transform their jobs into the sort of good jobs that Dennis and Paul value highly.
This is what unions have done world-wide. Former US Secretary of Labor, Robert Riech wrote recently that historically: “strong labor unions ensured American workers got a fair share of the economy’s gains...business boomed because American workers were getting raises, and had enough purchasing power to buy what expanding businesses had to offer.” *
Reich calls this “a virtuous cycle” - as workers earn more the entire economy benefits from their spending. But he says the US is suffering now because these lessons are forgotten, unions have been weakened and the incomes of its working people were undermined.
Meanwhile, United Voice defends the conditions already won. “We deal with a lot of issues ourselves,” says Dennis. “We have a good group of delegates. That’s not come from sitting on our hands. We don’t mind dealing directly with the bosses when they are wrong.
“If we need to go to the next level we ring up our (United Voice) Union Rights Centre and they help us sort it out. If we ask for support they always give it and it’s usually the legal side of things where we need it.
“This was always known as a good place to work. I would still rather work here than anywhere else. It’s a good place to work, but we have to work at keeping it that way.”
*robertreich.org - Why The Three Biggest Economic Lessons Were Forgotten, February 11, 2014