By Bronwen Beechey
ADELAIDE — As the South Australian Liberal government pushes ahead with its plan to privatise the Electricity Trust (ETSA), power industry workers are gearing up to ensure that they will not suffer.
On October 27, 1000 ETSA workers from seven trade unions attended a stop-work meeting here to discuss the privatisation. All country depots also stopped work. Meetings at Leigh Creek and Port Augusta each attracted 150 workers.
"Given that skeleton crews staffed power stations and emergency call-outs were answered, this was a really impressive turnout", Communications, Energy and Plumbing Union organiser Bob Donnelly told Green Left Weekly.
"There was a good attendance from all levels, including engineers, supervisors and even former bosses."
The two major issues discussed were superannuation and redundancies. Donnelly explained that when the government announced that it intended to privatise ETSA, it guaranteed that it would fully fund superannuation after the sale.
"Now it is saying that the new owner will have to fund super. We're not happy with that, because if the owner runs into financial difficulties, our members' super will be at risk. We also want representatives on the superannuation fund's board."
The government also guaranteed that no jobs would be lost. It sent letters to the union and all ETSA employees, promising no redundancies before the sale.
The government has now changed its tune, saying that a two-year certified agreement will have to be in place at the time of sale.
Under the Workplace Relations Act, when the two-year period is up, either party can request that the Industrial Relations Commission rescind the agreement.
The seven ETSA unions have formed a single bargaining unit to coordinate the dispute. The stop-work meetings agreed to give the government until November 13 to respond satisfactorily.
Following the stop-work meeting, the government again agreed to fully fund superannuation, but the issue of forced redundancies is still not resolved.
"We met with treasurer Rob Lucas on October 30. He insisted that there would be no forced redundancies, but we want that promise written into the contract of sale", Donnelly said.
The mass meeting empowered the unions to coordinate industrial action. Donnelly said the unions would ensure that the public was not inconvenienced. "Our fight is with the government, not the people of South Australia."
Donnelly made it clear that the power unions are completely opposed to privatisation. "In our experience, private operators put profits first. They are answerable to their shareholders, not to the public.
"We have been involved actively in the community anti-privatisation campaign. But we also have to ensure that, if the sale goes through, our members' jobs and conditions are protected."
The unions have also been negotiating with MPs opposed to the sale. In August, during the ETSA bill's second reading in parliament, the ALP and Democrats maintained their opposition. ALP MP Terry Cameron, however, voted for the sale and resigned from the ALP to sit as an "independent".
Independent "No Pokies" MP Nick Xenophon said he would support the sale if it is passed by a referendum. The government opposes such a move because opinion polls show 70% opposition.
Donnelly said the unions were pleased at the stand taken by the Democrats and ALP, and that he was certain they would not renege on their opposition.