By Dave Mizon
MELBOURNE — After almost ten weeks of strike action, Bass Strait offshore rig workers voted to return to work at a mass meeting held in Sale on September 20. The return to work was based upon a settlement document proposed by Esso. While the settlement is not a resounding victory, Esso has been forced to back down from its aggressive position on jobs and conditions.
Management has agreed to preserve the current roster and pre-dispute cleaning and catering standards. Management has also backed away from its attempts to break down demarcation between contract and Esso employees. Esso has agreed to write local agreements into the enterprise agreement, thus preserving them. Pre-dispute staffing levels have also been agreed to.
However, while the settlement acknowledges pre-dispute conditions and staffing levels, it does not spell out how this is to be achieved or by whom. The settlement commits the unions to start negotiating an enterprise agreement within two months, giving the company another chance to negotiate away hard-won conditions.
Even though the company's proposal addresses the salient issues that precipitated the dispute, workers were not happy to return to work. In fact it took over four hours for ACTU and federal and state AWU leaders to convince them that a return to work was the only course possible.
The Bass Strait rigs dispute has also exposed the flaws in the federal government's industrial relations legislation. While the legislation protected industrial action by rig workers, it also allowed the oil companies to issue massive writs for damages against unions. Also, Esso has an arrangement with the federal government whereby it can easily obtain work permits and visas for foreign personnel deemed "necessary for production" — in this case strikebreakers from as far away as Ireland.
For its part, the ACTU was interested in only on thing — getting the rig workers back to work and cobbling up yet another enterprise agreement. It viewed the conditions of the rig workers as anomalies, originating from better times, rather than as the rights of workers in an isolated location, working in a hazardous industry.
The AWU leadership was even more insidious: it actively sabotaged attempts to build solidarity at other AWU refineries. It also carried out a purge of the federal construction branch of the AWU during the dispute and intimidated organisers. For their disloyalty to the workers, both the ACTU and the AWU leaderships have been told they no longer represent rig workers and are no longer welcome on the rigs.
However, just as rig workers were preparing to return to work, a new twist developed. While Esso was prepared to reinstitute pre-dispute conditions and staffing levels and enter into negotiations, P&O, the second largest employer on the rigs, decided to hang tough.
P&O employs the cooking and cleaning and ancillary staff for the rigs. Its employees have set up a picket line at the Longford Heliport, and Esso workers are refusing to cross the picket line. Clearly the Bass Strait dispute is not dead and buried, despite the best efforts of the bosses, the ACTU and the AWU leadership.