By David Mizon
MELBOURNE — The management of Caltex's Kurnell refinery launched an attack on wages and conditions in April 1994 with glossy brochures and a gaggle of US managers.
Since then, process operators, members of the AWU state branch, have been barraged by propaganda and threats. In a number of instances operators have been stood down in an attempt to precipitate a dispute.
This was done with the express intention to have the matter dealt with in the State Industrial Commission, where a decision that would suit the company's need was 100% ensured.
Caltex's demands are wide ranging and cut deep into conditions. They are: a 42-hour week; a 25% reduction in the work force; 12-hour shifts; annualised salary; compulsory participation in the front-line emergency response; compulsory performance assessment linked with disciplinary procedures; abolition of work practices.
In response, the operators have initiated their own propaganda campaign against the company, in conjunction with resident groups and the local shire council. They also formed the Australasian Refinery Operatives Committee (AROC) and created a pact of solidarity to ensure that the attack against the 35-hour week did not become an industry-wide push.
AROC also sent a delegation to the ACTU to demand that the ACTU organise a counter-campaign in solidarity with the workers at Kurnell, which it agreed to do.
However, the operators have paid a price: the oil industry branch that represented Kurnell operators has been dissolved, and they are now represented by the AWU-FIMEE. This meant that the union office on site was closed and the equipment in the office had to be relocated.
While the move to the federal AWU-FIMEE means that any dispute at Kurnell will no longer be heard in the State Industrial Commission, the situation concerning operators is by no means clear-cut.
A ruling of the federal Industrial Relations Commission on January, 30 while protecting the 35-hour week, directed the parties to negotiate around the "heads of agreement" document. This document only outlined areas of discussion. The IRC formulated an annualised salary of $54,000 as a transition wage with a work value study to be conducted from March 1 to bring category relativities in line with other refineries. On this point the ruling is a victory for management, which is willing to implement its other demands within the framework of the 35-hour week.
Operators at Kurnell will not accept this interpretation of the ruling, and will enter only into negotiations that take into account the wishes of the membership. So while the 35-hour week is now not under attack, the struggle around wages and conditions is still to come.