Whatever you think of West End Draught, no one can deny that the ‘beer from down here’ was one of SA’s most iconic exports. The malty, rich draught and the famous red tin are as South Australian as pie floaters and complaining about road works. That’s one half of the story. The other one is not quite as consumerist and blasé. Nonetheless students from our university still got involved and donated their time to something both greater than themselves but also in their, and our, mutual self-interest.
Over 150 workers have been laid off as part of the closure and eventual redevelopment of the site on which West End brewery sits. Earlier this month, workers, trade unionists, students, and members of the public put up a ring of steel around the brewery to demand a fair pay-out package for the workers there…. Their mandate? “Nothing in, nothing out.”
Last week, donning our reporter’s caps, we put boots on the ground and paid the strikers a visit.
The mood was not one of defeatism or exasperation, but of solidarity and perseverance. A myriad of workers, union leaders, students, and loved ones were acting in solidarity, chatting and laughing. Spirits were high, and everyone was basking an atmosphere of good tunes, good vibes, and a fine sausage sizzle.
We first touched base with James Wood, a member of Socialist Alternative at Adelaide University to ask why students would come down and support a strike that has, at least on the face of it, ostensibly little to do with them.
On the topic of student participation in the strikes, Wood told us:
“We [Adelaide and Flinders University student contingent of Socialist Alternative] have a policy of solidarity with the working class like with all struggles, wherever they come and go… we don’t have a direct stake or anything like that but we can provide support...”
Wood also elaborated for us how managerial class professional cry-bullies reacted to the strike and how out of touch they were with the whole situation.
“The police have been here in a few instances… When they’re here, they’re called in by management, who have been absolutely hostile to everyone. Things did really escalate yesterday with a truck trying to get in and the police threatening to hand out fines.”
“Management are absolute hilarious… they come out with these papers showing that profits have gone down so much… that’s the point.”
We then spoke to Mark Whenan, food and beverage coordinator for the United Workers Union as well as the union organiser responsible for the site, and Dylan Bingos, brewery technician at West End for thirteen years. They told us about their experiences on the frontline and why they finally decided to take industrial action.
Bingos explained to us how the workers have been left out on the kerb:
“We’ve got a range of guys that have been here from thirty years down to two years, some guys are going to be walking away from what they thought was going to be their life time job right in the middle of a pandemic. There’s not a lot of opportunities out there at the moment and we just feel that a company this big and still profiting on this site should be looking after us…”
“I’ve been told by management before that all I do is push buttons, but it’s good that they now found out that we don’t.” It has been repeated that without the workers, management has attempted and failed to run the plant themselves, not due to a lack of trying. The sound of shattering glass from inside the plant was met with an airhorn and jeering from the picket line. It seems that the management cannot do the jobs of the people that they so cruelly look down upon and left out in the cold. A highly relatable point for many employed students whose employers and managers attitudes are all too often exactly the same.
Whenan pointed out that they are also standing up against the scourge of insecure work, which became a talking point in the aftermath of SA’s COVID scare last month:
“Dylan himself was a contractor. He’s not actually receiving redundancy for every year that he’s worked here. He’s only getting it for every year he was a full-time worker… then we’ve got people here, Craig and Mark, who have been here over twenty years and are not entitled to a cent.”
Regarding student participation in the protests, Whenan noted that, “On the message of insecure work, students probably feel that greater than any other young workers.” He also noted that “…the contribution of the Greens, Young Labor Left, Young Labor more broadly, Socialist Alternative, their support has all been fantastic and has been critical. Maintaining a picket twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week when there’s thirty workers is difficult… If that’s the reality, it requires the community to win, and that is what we’ve seen…”
The last thing Bingos told us before the end of our conversation was something quite inspiring for students and workers alike:
“I was always made aware when I first started here about the conditions that we do have currently here and how none of them were handed to us. They were all fought for. None of them were just gifted to us.”
In 2020, a year of intense Black Lives Matter protests and the police being shown for who they all too often really are, I think it’s worth highlighting the role of the police in industrial unrest too. When asked if brewery management are feeling the heat of the moment, we were told that, “…We [picketers] think they’re absolutely feeling the heat and that’s why they have tried to get the police to get trucks through [the picket] two days in a row.” Are the police really enforcers of public order here or something else? Special interests? Class interests perhaps? Recall what James Wood said about fines above.
Our next interview was with Jack, a student at the University of Adelaide as well as a National Tertiary Education Union member. When asked about why he was out here, Jack described an overarching pattern of corporate interests being prioritized over those of workers:
“A lot of our lives are dominated by corporate bullshit and it’s good to finally see people standing up to it. They’re not taking it lying down. These people have been left with not enough, they’re being screwed over, and good on them for actually taking a stand.”
On union solidarity Jack stated that, “…there should always be union solidarity – its touch one, touch all as always. The rare thing about this is that there’s a picket, there’s a hard picket. That’s the most exciting thing about this. It’s that this is not just a symbolic display. People are putting their bodies on the line and turning trucks around.”
Jack had been left with a very positive impression of the other picketers at the strike: “I’d never seen anything like it… the amount of decency and solidarity for these people. They’re the most decent people I’ve ever met. They’re unions that are looking out for people’s rent. Half of the workforce think they’re getting decent redundancies already but they’re out for the people who aren’t, the casuals, who are getting zero.”
Our final discussion was with Peter Bauer, the state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (formerly the Australian Metal Workers Union). After working as a fitter on the Adelaide railways for ten years, one of the first worksites in Adelaide to win a 38-hour work week, Peter went on to study labour history and actively involved himself in union action. Bauer also identified union solidarity as the reason for being out alongside the striking brewery workers:
“A long time ago we used to be able to call on unions to get together and there would be mass assistances on places like this. We were having strikes and blocking the place, we used to have every union out here, but now it seems that solidarity has gone a bit.”
When asked why, he remarked: “It’s a combination of lots of things. Unions are a lot weaker individually. When I joined the union, we had two-hundred thousand members nationally, and we in this state had forty-five thousand members. Now we’re down to three-thousand and six-hundred… also, the Industrial Relations system has had a big effect on the union because unions don’t have the resources now to pay massive fines, and something like this could end up into a massive fine.”
Like Whenan, Bauer also showed appreciation for the students who came out to join the picket: “It’s something we’re not doing enough of, teaching young workers and students the benefit of solidarity and what it means to their future and we should be encouraging it and supporting it. I think it’s great to see students out here.
“I have seen it [student solidarity with unions] more and more lately. I know that the last protest that I was involved in was the protest out in front of the Liberal Party convention and that was in relation to anti-privatisation of the trains and busses. There was a great show of union solidarity there from the students, who attended there en masse, and had a very strong voice. I think it is becoming more and more common and I think it’s a great thing.”
Bauer warned though that this didn’t mean unions should overlook engaging with a broader base of young people and students:
“That’s one of the problems we have. We haven’t got that message across to the young workers about the importance and the benefits of being in a union. It’s not just about providing you with information and giving you an agreement. It’s also about giving you strength and if you are going out into the workplace as an individual and you haven’t got that strength behind you, you’re negotiating on your own and that’s difficult for everyone…”
Despite the striker’s demands not all being met and the fact that the protest has been clamped down on by the “Fair” Work Commission, there seems to be positivity regarding the overall result of the picket with even Socialist Alternative stating:
“The strikers were fighting a multi-million dollar company, with breweries all around Australia, a legal system that was against them, and scabs that were undermining them. And yet despite all this they managed to win an increase to their redundancy packets. In the words of one striker, ‘To think we all took on and had a fair result against such a massive corporate giant is very satisfying’.”
Not to deny, of course, the all-too tragic circumstances in which this all took place:
“A multi-million dollar company decided to shut down a still profitable brewery because they could make slightly more profits if the beer was brewed in bigger factories interstate. This left people that had dedicated their entire working lives to the brewery jobless, with the effects rippling out across entire communities. They wouldn’t even offer them decent redundancy packets. Meanwhile the strikers were some of the most generous people you could meet. People who hadn’t been paid for a week offered their time to explain to us what was happening in the dispute, helped out homeless people who came by, and some even offered to give supermarket gift vouchers they’d received from the union to us as thanks for coming out in solidarity.”
When reached for comment on the outcome of these events, the United Workers Union, which represented the workers at West End, gave us this statement:
“Members have won a minimum of $22,000 extra after 17 days on strike. West End workers wish to send a big shout out for the support and solidarity from people everywhere that supported the boycott campaign, and the pubs that backed workers in. Our members are proud of the outcome they achieved.”
When you get your gifts for Christmas this year, don’t forget all the working people that actually make the sweet fruits of consumerist capitalism possible, or those who look out for them. Don’t be like the owners of West End or their white-collar lackeys. Be like someone who acts in solidarity and be like the people who actually physically made our South Aussie icon — the old red tins.