Man Of Steel Battles To Save Local Jobs

Wednesday 06th August 2014





PAUL Spear is an Australian Workers’ Union health and safety representative (HSR) at OneSteel Laverton, near Melbourne. In his role as Safety Co-ordinator for manufacturing he oversees all HSRs on the site. OneSteel Laverton is a steel manufacturing business, producing 90 tonnes of steel an hour, and has the ability to make 700,000 tonnes a year. At the moment it is running at 450,000 tonnes a year.

“I started at Laverton about 23 years ago. It was Smorgon Steel at the time, but now it’s OneSteel. I’d been at North Meat in Katherine and that became part of the Mudginberri dispute, that was a difficult time for all involved. We had a four month picket line. At the end of all that I came back to Melbourne.

“I had an acquaintance from the meat industry days who was working here at Laverton. I knew it was time for a change and he reckoned it wasn’t bad, so I gave it a go. He gave me the leg up and I’ve never looked back. I’ve never been afraid of hard work.”


Pride in his job

“My father taught me to have pride in my job. He always said you should leave a place in better condition than it was when you got there. He also told me that you had to be part of the union, and I always have been.

“They asked me on the first day if I wanted to join the AWU. ‘Of course,’ I said. There was never any doubt for me. I worked in the melt shop for five or six years as a steel maker on the 90 tonne furnace. Then I moved into the rolling mills because I saw that as an opportunity. I was involved in writing safe working procedures and assessing risk. I’d been a health and safety rep since my second year at Laverton, just as I was throughout my time in the meat industry.”

“I’d been here about 15 years when my work colleagues and senior management voted me up as Safety Co-ordinator for the site. Management at that time saw the benefit of having someone who knew the industry, knew what we do here and all the processes. I look after health and safety on-site and that includes psychological health as well as physical. I’m involved with rehab after someone’s had an injury, and I make sure that anyone who is seriously ill, and not necessarily work-related, has what they need. I give advice and do a bit of counselling. I also am the EEO contact at Laverton.”

‘Insanity’ not to back local industry

“I was at the steel rally at Webb Dock today [5 August] because I am trying to look after 400 families. I’ve got 400 workmates and members here who want to look after their loved ones. They’ve already taken a big knock because the steel orders aren’t there.

“It is insanity that infrastructure projects being built with our taxpayer dollars are not using local products. Look at us here. We use 100% recycled scrap to make steel. We’re cleaning up the environment, and making world class product to world class specifications.

“We’ve lost 30 people to redundancy in the past few months, and everyone’s taken a pay cut of around $20,000 or $25,000 because now instead of being a seven days a week, 24 hour operation, we’ve gone to Monday to Friday. People have to rethink everything. Where their kids go to school, where they live, how they’re going to retire one day.

“The AWU is a good union. They have the fights they have to have, and this fight for the steel industry is one of those. I think the training opportunities the AWU gives to health and safety reps and delegates are excellent. It was through the union, and Smorgon’s, that I did my Cert IV in OHS and went on to do a graduate diploma. Unions and employers can work together for better outcomes and this place has proved that to me.

“I worry about the future for my grandson. He’s only young now, but what am I going to advise him to do for a living? Will he drive a tourist bus on the Great Ocean Road? I don’t know. They say they want people with trades, but what’s the point if manufacturing is dead? What are our children and our grandchildren going to do? No-one seems to be able to answer me that.

“These governments, state and federal, who don’t want to buy Australian steel, and glass, and aluminium and all the rest of it, what are they thinking? It’s a no-brainer. We need jobs.”

Interview by Mary McNamara.