Behind the Qld electricity crisis

Issue 

Peter Simpson is Queensland state organiser for the Electrical Trades Union. He is currently involved in a campaign to win a new enterprise bargaining agreement that will push electrical workers' pay levels beyond the 13.5% pay increase achieved in the last EBA. He was interviewed for Green Left Weekly by Andrew Martin.

Why in your view is it important for electrical workers to receive a pay rise given the current energy crisis?

They need a pay rise because they are below par with their southern comrades and to attract some of those tradesmen from down south to up to here. They are $3 an hour below par in some cases.

We need those increased rates of pay if we are to attract the workforce we need. That's the main reason.

This dispute has been going on for a while. What is the background to the dispute? What actually sparked it off?

The dispute started with the summer storm season when we lost 250,000 consumers, some for two or three days. This dispute is based on the fact that 20 years after the SEQEB [South-East Queensland Electricity Board] dispute there aren't enough maintenance workers being employed to keep the electrical system running properly. People haven't been listening. It was always going to fall down. It fell down in the summer thunderstorms and then everyone went "Oh, shit, you've got to do an inquiry".

They put the inquiry together and came up with the findings that there weren't enough people to do the work and there wasn't enough maintenance being done.

We've been saying this since the SEQEB dispute, when they sacked 700 linesmen. We said then that the industry can't cope unless you re-instate the linesmen, because the place is going to fall apart. And now it is falling apart. It's taken 20 years to do it and it'll probably take another 10-15 to rebuild it.

Not everyone, particularly the younger generation, is aware of the SEQEB dispute. Was that the beginning of privatisation of electrical services?

It was the beginning of the end for a lot of things. It was the beginning of corporatisation; the beginning of privatisation and economic rationalism. It was the beginning of the use of private contractors. The fundamental principle of the dispute was they wanted to use contractors. We wanted to make sure we kept a permanent workforce, and for a lot of social reasons as well, not just for our own benefit.

Once you give everything over to the private sector, you've only got employment over the length of the job (on a contract basis). How do you pay off the house? How do you raise your kids? That was the premise that we fought on. We lost it. And now, basically we're suffering the consequences, and not just in the electricity industry.

Just look at every industry that's contracting out. Hardly any apprentices are getting trained. There is an international skills shortage. I might be a bit passionate about this one area, but I reckon once you've looked at this dispute everything stems from it. Anywhere where there's contracting out points back to this dispute where they pared everything back and outsourced it all.

What we seeing now is actually a repeat of what happened in New Zealand during the mid '90s with Mercury Power. There were cases where people were without power for seven weeks! The basic philosophy there was sack, or reduces the work force, shrink it back to a core and just squeeze the workers as hard as you can. But when things go wrong, there's no-one there to put it back together.

What's the future going to be like for Energex and Ergon workers?

Bright! It's just been announced that there will be another 700 workers in the industry by June 2005. So there's going to be heaps more jobs for kids. There's going to be workers coming from interstate. There'll be jobs where 12 months ago there was nothing.

Job prospects, security, much more money — everything's looking rosier for these workers now. But that, of course, is going to depend on having a strong and united union. Without a union, you wouldn't have had an inquiry; you wouldn't have had enterprise bargaining outcomes like we've had for the last couple of years.

Our members are pushing pretty hard to get a good outcome with this current enterprise bargaining agreement with a decent pay increase. They've spent a lot of years just copping on what's not much more than a base rate of pay. Also, because of being short staffed, our members have been working large amounts of overtime and they're getting to the stage where they are just knackered. Some people have been working since Christmas just about seven days a week.

We want people to pick up a few extra dollars without having to work overtime just to survive. We want workers to have a decent standard of living.

From Green Left Weekly, September 1, 2004.

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