Unions scuttle La Trobe Valley anti-privatisation campaign

Issue 

By Sue Bolton

MELBOURNE — Members of the Australian Services Union (ASU) employed by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) in the La Trobe Valley went on strike for 24 hours at midnight on July 28. This followed a period of work bans in protest at the gradual privatisation of the SECV. It was a big step for the ASU, which had never been on strike before, but divisions between unions covering SECV workers looks like destroying the campaign.

The strike was in response to the contracting out of telecommunications and maintenance work. The Victorian government signed contracts worth $175 million with four companies, including Skilled Engineering Pty Ltd. In the early 1980s the Amalgamated Metal and Engineering Union (AMEU — then known as AMFSU) campaigned to prevent Skilled Engineering establishing itself in the metal industry. Skilled Engineering is a body hire company which was being used by employers to break down working conditions and job security in the metal industry at the time.

Some 4500 SECV jobs out of a total of 10,000 have been axed over the last three years. The contracting out of SECV work will cause a further loss of jobs.

Kevin Taylor from the La Trobe Valley Workers Forum told Green Left Weekly that despite the loss of jobs over the last three years, "not one job has gone as a result of a sacking. All the jobs have been negotiated away in union deals."

In this recent round of privatisation, the ASU was the first to take strike action, because it will be the first to be affected by the next round of privatisation. The ASU is down to 300 members, mostly administration staff, supervisors and plant operators.

Unfortunately, union leaderships in the La Trobe Valley have been split over whether or not to launch a campaign against privatisation.

Some unions, such as the AMEU, are doing deals with the private contractors and doing nothing to oppose privatisation. The reason for the AMEU's approach is self-interest. With the ACTU restructuring of unions, the AMEU will become the principle union covering workers employed by private contractors in the La Trobe Valley, but it will lose most of its members working for the SECV to other unions. Kevin Taylor says, "The AMEU action may save members in the short term, but it won't save jobs or conditions".

The approach taken by the AMEU leadership is not supported by all of its members. AMEU members at the Yallourn workshops voted to oppose privatisation, but they were overridden at an AMEU mass meeting.

Another union whose SECV members wanted to see a genuine campaign against privatisation is the Construction, Forestry and Mining ). Its coverage of power station operators puts it in a crucial position in any industrial dispute over privatisation, because they have the power to switch off the electricity supply.

Over the last week the CFMEU has taken action to ensure its members don't get involved in the anti-privatisation campaign. The Victorian branch of the CFMEU has dissolved the three La Trobe Valley sub-branches and replaced their elected secretaries with two appointed officials — who don't favour a campaign against privatisation.

The only unions giving support to the ASU's anti-privatisation campaign, the Electrical Trades Union, FIMEE (engineering employees) and National Union of Workers, decided at mass meetings on July 29 that they'd pull out of the campaign. This will probably mean that the ASU's campaign will fizzle out and more jobs will be lost.

Despite the inter-union rivalries, there is still widespread support on the job for a genuine campaign against privatisation which involves all unions. "The SECV has been able to play unions off against each other for far too long", says Taylor. Supporters of the LTVWF raised alternative motions calling for a campaign against privatisation at some of the mass meetings.