Beer giant Carlton & United Breweries has been grilled over an entry in a manager’s diary that outlines a strategy to “win the war” against union workers protesting job cuts.
In a Senate inquiry on Thursday, CUB brewery manager Sebastian Siccita was presented with a page from his diary describing a strategy to overcome a six-month protest line outside the Abbotsford brewery gates, including to “shoot the shit out them” and “cut their supply lines and starve them out – through legal fees and defamation”.
Trade unions said they were “shocked and appalled” at the emergence of notes kept by management during the dispute, which was sparked last year over the termination of the brewery’s entire maintenance workforce.
Mr Siccita was taken by surprise when the Senate committee chairman, Labor’s Gavin Marshall, showed him the copy of the document and began questioning him on what he meant by the comments from September last year.
At one point, Mr Siccita attempted to retain the diary after being handed it, saying, “it’s mine.”
Senator Gavin Marshall told Mr Siccita he had privilege over the document, but thanked him for acknowledging the diary was in fact his.
He took the questions on notice and said he could not recall what the notes were about.
The Senate inquiry was probing CUB’s handling of what became one of Australia’s highest-profile industrial feud in years.
The dispute started after the brewer dumped a long-standing maintenance contract. The decision left 55 workers out of a job after they refused to reapply with a new contractor on vastly lower pay and non-union conditions.
The laid-off workers and their union officials protested outside the gates for six months, prompting sometimes ugly confrontations, while the broader union movement launched a national boycott campaign, urging drinkers to split with some of CUB’s most popular beers, such as VB, Carlton Draught, Melbourne Bitter, Pure Blonde and Fat Yak. Cruel battle tactics
Electrical Trades Union state secretary Troy Gray said he had never seen such a cruel battle plan, from a manager “so focussed on cutting the wages of loyal, skilled workers”.
“What these secret documents reveal is what overly powerful corporations are prepared to do when they think no one’s watching,” he said, “when the system encourages them to go after working people and there aren’t ruled to rein them in.”
Mr Gray said this was a “glimpse into what unions are defending workers from every day”.
The six-month-long dispute ended shortly after CUB was taken over by AB InBev late last year.
CUB vice-president of legal and corporate affairs, Craig Katerberg, said the new company had been “interested in resolving it as soon as possible” and soon hired the workers back on their full pay and conditions.
“We looked at the situation and thought it could have been done better,” Mr Katerberg said.
“It was clear CUB should have taken a more collaborative and consultative approach.”
The company said it had since adopted a “more consultative approach” with workers and their unions at the Abbotsford plant.
“We have had a number of learnings,” Mr Katerberg said. “It’s something we admit mea culpa on and we want to make improvements.”
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said employers had been hiring lawyers to work out ways to “change the balance of power” in Australia’s industrial relations system, and the union movement now believed the “rules are broken”.
“Employers have investigated every way to get around the rules, just like they do with tax laws,” she said.
“It should never be this hard for workers to resolve a dispute … this one took a nationwide consumer boycott [of CUB products].”
Ms McManus, who was elected ACTU secretary earlier this year, said she hoped the Senate committee’s inquiry would “bring out into the open” the unfair practices that had become commonplace, and lay the groundwork for reforms of the Fair Work Act under a future Labor government.
“This is part of the reason we have got record low wage growth; because people don’t have the power to bargain,” she said.
“We are united in our quest to change the rules.” ‘Difficult time’
After the hearing, a company spokesman said the diary entry had been written during a “difficult time in the dispute” and did not reflect the strategy of CUB management.
“While it is disappointing that the manager’s missing notebook has been using in this fashion in a Senate committee, CUB and its new management team is focused on the future and good relations at all its work sites,” the spokesman said.
CUB also said it was pleased that the dispute was able to be resolved within two months of AB InBev sealing its merger with CUB.