The nation’s four car makers await the outcome of crucial negotiations which started at mid-day following ugly scenes reminiscent of the bad old days of violent industrial disputes, writes Mike Duffy.

The three-week strike by 280 steel workers – which threatens to halt production at Holden, Mitsubishi, Ford and Toyota unless resolved by the weekend – last night reached flash-point when mounted police in riot gear broke up picket lines at a BHP production facility in Victoria.

It was a scene Australian industry thought they would never see again following the introduction of workplace agreements replacing the traditional union-versus-management confrontations.

While the provocative move made possible the delivery of 500 tonnes of steel to car and component manufacturers it infuriated the trade union movement.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) has condemned the police action, accusing BHP of inflaming the dispute.

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The company did little to calm a situation which threatens to escalate with the announcement that police may be used again later in the week to help move another steel shipment.

The dispute – involving a claim for job security and protection of pay entitlements – is the fourth in the past year.

Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said today workplace disputes had cost Australia’s car industry $A500 million over the past 10 months, threatening the nation’s reputation overseas as a reliable supplier.

Macfarlane said the picket line blocking access to the BHP steel plant was placing 14,000 car manufacturing jobs in jeopardy and thousands of additional jobs throughout the components sector.

If the industry is brought to a halt, it will cost the four local car makers around $A40 million a day in lost sales and could threaten export contracts.

Toyota and Ford have avoided shutdowns so far by flying in steel from Japan. Holden and Mitsubishi say they have sufficient steel for reduced daily production until Friday.

If there is no resolution, thousands of workers could be stood down. All four companies have brought forward so many programmed days off and holidays, they would have little alternative but to lay off workers without pay.

With 70 workplace agreements coming up for negotiation over coming months, car makers are concerned the latest disruption could be the precursor to many more stoppages.

All four car makers are due to release new models in the second half of the year and cannot afford to lose production.

As well, all four car makers have recently negotiated massive new investment from head offices in the US and Japan and must perform.

AMWU national secretary Doug Cameron said he was optimistic of a resolution but said it “would be a tough negotiation”.