The Geelong refinery dispute may not hold the record for the longest campaign for workers’ rights, but the dispute over safety nevertheless won due to a concerted campaign.
On October 5, almost 300 workers voted to walk out of the refinery, owned by Viva Energy Australia, over safety concerns. They began a 24-hour picket, covering four access gates to the refinery. The initial walk out was facilitated by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
The next afternoon, a notice was put up on all four gates, literally nailed to the trees along refinery road, saying the AWU and the AMWU had received an injunction order from the Supreme Court to refrain from any further participation in the action — not just on the site but anywhere. In response, concerned community members set up a small camp at the main gate to support the workers.
Geelong community volunteers became involved in this campaign for several reasons. The first and perhaps most obvious is that, in recent years, the community has been hit hard by job cuts, particularly in the manufacturing sector. After 51 years of operating at Point Henry, Alcoa shut its doors rather suddenly in 2014, resulting in 500 workers being sacked. On October 7, while the refinery dispute was taking place, the local Ford factory closed its doors after manufacturing in Geelong for just over 91 years.
When the announcement was made in 2013 that Ford would stop manufacturing cars in Geelong, warnings were given from unions of the flow-on effects to local businesses and the economy. Specifically, it was pointed out that the 1200 job losses at Ford could lead to thousands of other job cuts in Geelong and surrounds, with a snowball effect of closures, redundancies and unemployment.
This leaves Geelong in a vulnerable position. When unemployment is high, it undermines wages and conditions. Workers become more and more desperate to get some kind of income to sustain their families and maintain their way of life. This made this dispute with Viva Energy all the more important.
Community volunteers on the picket knew that, win or lose, this dispute would set a precedent for other multinationals seeking to exploit a difficult situation for workers: if they won, it would send the message that Geelong workers stick together and will not risk their lives on the job for a few dollars, but if they lost, it would be a sign of bad things to come.
Safety at work
According to figures from Safe Work Australia, as of October 11, 132 workers have been killed at work so far this year. On October 6, in the midst of the Geelong refinery community picket, two workers in Brisbane were tragically killed. Aged 34 and 55, they were crushed where they stood by two 9-tonne concrete slabs.
Speaking to refinery workers outside the main gate about the incident, one scaffolder told Green Left Weekly: "I have a gut feeling if we go back to work now, one of us is going to die."
In the week leading up to the Geelong workers voting to walk out, there were seven serious safety incidents, with WorkSafe inspectors visiting the refinery site four times. Just days before the walk out, a worker fell into scalding water, resulting in first and second degree burns to one leg.
Another refinery worker at the picket said: "I’m in trouble if I stay out here, I might lose my house. But I might end up dead if I go back in, so I may as well stay out here."
On October 9, day five of the 24-hour picket, parts of Victoria, including Geelong, were issued with a severe weather warning of wind speeds up to 90 kilometres per hour, and gusts of up to 120km/h. Before the warning, community members had been organising a family day with food and music at the main gate, but was cancelled due to safety concerns.
The winds came roaring through, ripping apart two of the camp sites that had been set up. Community members at the North gate looked on as the aluminium piping of a gazebo tent was shredded by the winds. Seven people clung to the frame of the tent as it was ripping apart, trying to patch it with tape. After 40 minutes of attempting to save the site, volunteers on the gate decided it was becoming too much of a hazard and began to safely dismantle the structure.
While that site was being pulled apart, a tree blew down across the road to the main gate between the refinery and the community camp site, missing the site by 7 meters.
Shortly after the tree came down, a nitrogen tanker arrived at the main gate. Community volunteers had been informed that this chemical was absolutely critical to the refinery, and for safety reasons all nitrogen tankers must be allowed in. However, with the tree down, the nitrogen tanker had to turn around. Meanwhile, there had been no communication from the authorities or Viva Energy management.
Community members then witnessed a wood chipper and bobcat arrive and made quick work of removing the tree, but failed to provide clear safety directions to the community volunteers who had their safety put at risk due to the noise levels and wood chip debris.
Lessons from the campaign
Over the eight days of the picket there were threats of legal action against community volunteers and rumours of $22,000 fines for the workers at the gates. One community member received repeated abuse on Facebook from several accounts that coincidentally had been created after the dispute had started and then had their account placed on a 24-hour ban due to a supposed breach of Facebook’s community standards.
However, the community and the workers kept it together, and at 2pm on day 8 an agreement was reached between the unions and Viva Energy. This was voted on by the workers, who then went back to work. The conditions that have been publicly reported include preserving the 35-hour working week for all workers and contract groups on site, and a full site safety audit conducted jointly between Viva Energy representatives, WorkSafe and the unions.
Anti-union legislation is making it more and more difficult to guarantee safety and conditions in the workplace. Currently, unions can only withdraw labour legally during an enterprise bargaining agreement dispute. If there is an issue that occurs outside an EBA dispute, withdrawing labour because of that issue is illegal.
This means it has become critical to establish solidarity networks in the community, to be ready to respond to disputes when they arise.
Many have asked why we bothered. Why would you camp out 24-hours a day for 7.5 days?
The simple answer is community members and workers were not camping out just for the safety of those employees directly affected. They were not camping out just for the safety of the Geelong community. They were camping out for all workers. They were camping out for all workers to have to right to get home safely at the end of a shift. They were camping out because they believe in the union motto “Touch one, Touch all” and, this time, the community won.