More than 150 unionists and two giant inflatable mascots rallied outside Esso's Australian headquarters in Southbank, Melbourne, on August 3. The rally was organised by the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU), the Australian Workers' Union (AWU) and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU).
The rally was in support of maintenance workers who have been picketing Esso's Longford gas site since June in protest over the plan by UGL, which holds Esso’s maintenance contract, to retrench them and have a subsidiary rehire them on 30% less pay and a two-week fly-in, fly-out roster.
ETU Victorian Branch Communications and Campaigns Manager Rory McCourt described the mood of the rally as "defiant". "It was a fantastic turnout," he said, adding that workers telling their personal stories was "particularly powerful".
McCourt said company moves to reduce wages and conditions were taking a toll on families, but the union campaign is growing "bigger and bigger" as people begin to appreciate the ramifications of corporations creating "shelf companies" that use unrelated workers to sign up to unfair agreements.
Union mascot Scabby the Rat, a giant inflatable rat, was struck down by an interim court order banning him from the Longford protest site. On July 21, the AWU, AMWU and ETU agreed to orders to temporarily deflate Scabby and remove signs that read “Don't Be Scabby the Rat” after UGL brought a damages claim against them for coercion and anti-competitive conduct.
But the court order gave the unions a chance to be a bit creative. They put Scabby on a boat on the Yarra River outside Esso’s headquarters. There it was joined by Greedy the Fat Cat, a 4-metre high, cigar-smoking, inflatable cat, which squeezes a "local worker" in one hand and holds a bag of money in the other.
Greedy made his debut outside Crown Casino on July 25 when workers protested the sacking of maintenance workers there.
ETU state secretary Troy Gray said: "This is not the end of Scabby, he's just a busy, busy boy. We gave a commitment to take him down because he's needed in NSW — that's the next dispute.
"At some stage, [Scabby] might end up in a drawn-out legal case but we look forward to that one. It really comes down to [this] — is it an issue against other workers or is it something that represents the company ... we think if you take that [latter] line you should be alright."
UGL's legal action was the first Australian challenge to Scabby since it appeared at the six-month Carlton & United Breweries picket at Abbotsford last year. The rat, which originated in a bricklayers' dispute in Chicago in 1990, has survived multiple court challenges in the US and is protected under their constitution's right to freedom of speech.
The Federal Court is yet to fully determine UGL's case, which has also called for unions to take down lists of employees who crossed the picket line and not approach workers at their homes.
The case comes as leaked UGL emails show the contractor is scrambling to recruit interstate fly-in, fly-out maintenance workers at Esso's onshore and offshore sites. Unions claim the move breaches the company's commitment to only hire local workers.