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New South Wales: Boeing strike ends but the dispute is not over.

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Monday 20 February 2006

New South Wales: Boeing strike ends but the dispute is not over


MARK COLVIN: One of Australia's longest running strikes has come to an end, with ai rcraft maintenance workers at Boeing returning to their jobs at the Williamtown air base near Newcastle today. 


But the nine month long dispute is far from over. 


The company has rejected the push by the 25 engineers for collective bargaining and that's likely to mean a battle in the courts. 


The case is being watched closely because what happens next could set the scene for a broader battle on the Federal Government's new industrial relations laws. 


Karen Percy prepared this report. 


WORKER: …definitely some tension… 


KAREN PERCY: There was more than a little anxiety as the workers turned up at the Williamtown air base today. 


WORKER: It's all a little strange but, yeah, it's good to be on the road to the end of it all. 


WORKER 2: You know, the struggle's been long and hard but the industrial action's over today and we're looking forward to getting back to work. 


WORKER 3: I wouldn't wish anything like this on anybody. 


KAREN PERCY: For the first time in 264 days they were going inside the facility, but any hopes that they'd join the 70 or so of their colleagues who didn't go on strike were quickly dashed. 


The returning workers won't be picking up their tools right away. After so long off the job, the company says they all need to be recertified and retrained in safety procedures. 


As a result, they'll be gradually rostered back into service to maintain the RAAF's F/A-18 fighter jets. 


Maintenance worker, Adam Burgoyne. 


ADAM BURGOYNE: I find it a little bit hard to swallow, considering that there's guys that have been out on strike and on the picket line that wrote some of these safety policies for the Boeing Williamtown site and now they're getting judged as people that maybe may not have the qualifications to work down there, or the proper training. 


Yet, when this dispute was going on, they flew down numerous people from other sites that had no Hornet experience whatsoever and put them straight to work on the tools. 


KAREN PERCY: What do you think the reception is going to be like when you do eventually get back on the tools and you are amongst those colleagues who didn't strike? 


ADAM BURGOYNE: It's going to come down as individual to individual. I mean, people have different feelings about what we've done. 


KAREN PERCY: Boeing's Steve Parker says the industrial action pulled the workforce apart. 


STEVE PARKER: It's not going to be easy to reintegrate. I'm very confident we'll do that very well. We've got some good plans in place. 


They will come back to their existing conditions they had. They have the option, if they want to, to sign up to the improved conditions that 90… almost 100 per cent of the workforce signed up to last year. 


KAREN PERCY: And while the Air Force sent one plane to a rival company for maintenance during the strike period, Boeing says the prolonged action didn't affect its operations. 


Steve Parker again: 


STEVE PARKER: Despite the, you know, the innuendo that was put out by the union, we haven't missed a delivery, a schedule for an aircraft, so we performed very well. 


KAREN PERCY: The dispute is far from over. 


A key demand from the workers was the right to bargain as a group through the Australian Workers' Union. 


Boeing's Steve Parker says that's not going to happen. 


The 25 maintenance engineers agreed to go back to work after the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission ruled last week that it had jurisdiction over the case, despite the workers being covered by a Federal award. 


Boeing will fight the State intervention. 


The Prime Minister John Howard was urged to intervene when he visited the striking workers in November. He didn't interfere then and today he wasn't commenting on how this case might affect his Government's industrial relations changes. 


But Mr Howard is pleased that air maintenance operations at Williamtown will be returning to normal. 


JOHN HOWARD: I always thought it was a pointless dispute and I just think it's good, because I don't like seeing people on strike, I don't like seeing families affected and I think commonsense has prevailed. 


The workers say it's now out of their hands. 


The next phase of the dispute will be played out by lawyers representing Boeing and the Australian Workers' Union. 


MARK COLVIN: Karen Percy prepared that report, with help from Giselle Wakatama and Liz Farquhar at ABC Newcastle.