Solidarity needed in the face of anti-worker laws

Viva Energy picket line. Photo: Jemma Ryan

Workers at the Geelong oil refinery, with the support of community members, from October 5 to 11 at four refinery access gates over serious safety concerns at the site. The refinery, previously owned by Shell, has been managed by Viva Energy for the past two years.

The initial walk-out was facilitated by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU). But both unions were served with an injunction order from the Supreme Court to refrain from any further participation in the action on day two. From then on, workers and community members held the picket together for another five days, in the hope that doing so would prevent a worker dying on site.

On October 11 an agreement was made between the unions and Viva Energy that guaranteed a 35-hour week for workers and a full site safety audit conducted by the unions, WorkSafe and Viva Energy representatives.

After the initial walk-out, workers were put under surveillance, blackmailed and threatened with $22,000 fines and losing their jobs if they did not go back to work.

However, most of the workers on the picket seemed to think it was sheer luck that no one had already died. This put them in a difficult position: go back to work and risk their lives each time they walked on-site, or choose life but risk a world of potential economic hurt. More than one worker said: “I’m stuffed if I stay out here but I’m potentially dead if I go back, so I may as well stay out.”

Due to the surveillance, the threats and the unions being warded off, the number of workers on the picket declined over the week as the bosses did their best to drive wedges between them. But, despite the underhanded tactics from the bosses, workers and community members held the picket together, 24 hours a day for seven and a half days.

The community-run picket was there to show workers at the refinery that in Geelong there are community members who recognised the life-or-death situation these workers were in and were willing to put themselves on the line to prevent a workplace death. It was also to show multinational companies like Viva Energy that despite the high unemployment rates in Geelong, our community is not willing to take jobs at any cost, especially not if that cost is workers’ lives.

Green Left Weekly journalists were on the picket line every day, reporting on the struggle via the paper and Green Left Radio on 3CR. They did their best to counter the outright lies reported in the local Murdoch paper on day three of the picket, that the picket was over and everyone had gone back to work.

As thanks for this solidarity, a group of workers at the refinery made a significant financial donation to Green Left Weekly so the paper can continue to report on workers’ struggles around the country and internationally. Some workers have since volunteered to take a bundle of Green Lefts each week and distribute them in the tea room to their workmates.

It is critical that workers and community members fight hand-in-hand against greedy multinational companies whose only drive is to make profits whatever the cost in other areas, like safety or possibly a worker’s life.

Solidarity is needed to defend workers and defend unions, as we see more and more anti-worker and anti-union legislation touted or passed.

If we want to build mass movements that can pose a serious threat to companies like Viva Energy, then workers and community members need to work together. Grassroots, people-powered activist media like GLW play a key role in reporting and promoting collective struggles.

GLW is funded by workers, unionists, students, pensioners, the unemployed and community activists, who see the value of a campaigning activist paper. You can contribute by making a donation to our Fighting Fund at greenleft.org.au/donate/details.

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