Workers at McCain Foods in Smithton, Tasmania, are fed up with being treated like the poor cousins of mainland Australian workers. They’re now demanding equal pay for equal work. Organized by the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), the industrial action by about one hundred workers kicked off on July 22, on a gray and wet morning outside the factory gates.
AMWU organizer Mick Wickham received word that McCain had refused the workers’ demands for a modest pay raise and improved conditions to bring them in line with McCain workers in Victoria. According to Mickham, the union at the plant is strong: it was unionized before McCain took it over. Management’s counteroffer was below inflation: it would have left maintenance workers around $91 per week worse off, and production line workers at least $72 per week worse off.
When the AMWU members rejected this proposal, McCain ordered a lockout. The workers responded by planning a series of measures including refusing overtime, taking breaks at the same time to disrupt production, and declining to take calls during breaks.
On Friday, July 30, McCain further upped the stakes by ordering an indefinite lockout. The workers and their delegates were united and disciplined, and they countered the lockout with protests at the factory’s gates. Following a groundswell of community support for the strikers, McCain ended the lockout on August 4. The dispute, however, is ongoing.
French Fries Are No Cheaper in Tasmania
Over the last ten years, wages in Tasmania have not kept pace with inflation, especially in the public sector. Manufacturing workers in Tasmania earn 10 percent less than the national average. Employers often justify the imbalance by claiming that the cost of living is lower in Tasmania, particularly when it comes to housing.
However, a massive investor-driven housing shortage is pushing up prices, especially in Tasmania’s North West. Housing stress is at an all-time high, and rents are steadily increasing, as is homelessness. As in other parts of the country, the dream of secure, affordable housing is largely shattered.
Management has rewarded the recent sacrifices made by McCain’s workers in Tasmania with attacks. McCain’s Smithton factory processes potatoes into frozen French fries. During the pandemic, the workers at McCain were considered essential. While other industries faced temporary shutdowns, they continued to manufacture food.
This has also added to their bargaining power. As Sam Facey, a quality assessor and AMWU delegate at the plant, explained: “We’re the ones that kept food on the table during a pandemic.”
Employers often cite low productivity to justify why Tasmanian workers are paid less. But McCain’s management has recently conceded that its Smithton plant is one of the best globally. Last year, the plant processed 54,000 tons of potatoes. This year, following significant capital investment, it is set to process 80,000 tons. As AMWU Tasmania secretary John Short observes: “French fries are no cheaper in Tasmania than they are on the mainland.”
Additionally, McCain has recently signed a contract to supply bagged frozen French fries to Woolworths, one of Australia’s two largest supermarkets. The future is good for McCain Foods Smithton. Knowing this, the workers have resolved to stand firm.
Equal Pay for Equal Work
“People think we’re being greedy, they think we get well paid,” one of the McCain Smithton workers remarks, speaking anonymously to avoid company reprisals. But the reality is very different. The workers are on twelve-hour shifts and a forty-four-hour week, with just three out of every eight weekends off.
Production line work means that shifts are inflexible. Workers often have to miss family events, including their children’s birthdays. To compensate for this, and for previously accepting lower wage increases, the workers are asking for a 12 percent pay raise over three years and ten days’ sick leave. Given that food production and distribution workers have been particularly at risk during the pandemic, these are modest demands.
The dispute at McCain’s Smithton plant follows an emerging nationwide pattern. In June this year, food manufacturing workers at General Mills’ factory in Rooty Hills, New South Wales, rejected an offer almost identical to McCain’s. After three weeks, the United Workers Union-led strike won.
Across the Bass Strait, members of the Australian Services Union (ASU) at the Geelong Regional Library Corporation (GRLC) have also taken strike action over a wage offer below inflation. The two-hundred-strong GLRC workforce is one of the lowest paid in Victoria. According to one of the strike’s organizers, they are planning a further work stoppage for late August.
The major pay discrepancy between McCain workers in Tasmania and their mainland counterparts has galvanized the strikers at Smithton. McCain staff in Ballarat, Victoria, for example, are paid around 15 percent more.
In the face of McCain’s insultingly low offer, AMWU members at the Smithton plant voted unanimously in favor of industrial action. Now that rotating protests at the plant’s gates have forced McCain to back down from a lockout, the workers at McCain are in a position of strength.
Like increasing numbers of essential and low-paid workers across Australia, AMWU members at McCain Smithton are proving that solidarity and unity can win dignity and respect. They are also demonstrating to workers across Australia’s southernmost state that their bosses will only stop treating them as the poor cousins of mainlanders when Tasmanians stand up and fight back.