By Chris Slee
YALLOURN — Unions are maintaining a protest camp outside the Yallourn power station in Victoria's La Trobe Valley, despite the February 9 ending of the month-long lockout of maintenance workers. The issues in dispute have not been completely resolved and further industrial action cannot be ruled out.
An agreement reached between three of the unions at the plant and Yallourn Energy on February 11 has not yet been certified, because another union which covers workers there, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, has announced it opposes the terms of the deal.
The key sticking point is the issue of contractors. Workers are concerned that the company wants to use contractors instead of permanent staff on tasks such as the repair of machinery breakdowns.
Under the current enterprise agreement, the company cannot bring in contractors in a way that would undermine conditions and jobs for the permanent workforce. The company wants to weaken or eliminate such restrictions.
The workers have good reason to worry about the impact of contractors on job security. The number of power workers in the Latrobe Valley has been cut from 12,000 to 3,000 in recent years.
In theory, nobody was made compulsorily redundant, but in reality people were targeted and pressured to leave. They were given no work and ordered to sit in a shed all day for periods of up to two years. Eventually many became demoralised and took a redundancy package.
Meanwhile contractors were brought in to do work previously done by permanent workers. Some of those made redundant got jobs with contracting companies but often they are employed on a casual basis. They have to sit around waiting for a phone call telling them when there is a job for them.
Harassment has become even worse after the privatisation of the power station itself. Maintenance workers in particular have been targeted. For example, a worker may be told to do a job for which no parts are available, then abused when the job is not finished in the allotted time.
Maintenance workers are also being ordered to work alone on dredges in the open cut mine. This is unsafe, because they are a long way from help if they get injured.
The issue of contractors has been a key point of dispute in negotiations on a new enterprise agreement. The Electrical Trades Union, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and Australian Workers Union imposed bans as part of their enterprise agreement campaign, and the company responded with a lockout of members of these unions.
Following power blackouts, the Victorian government declared a state of emergency and ordered a return to work. It also appointed former Labor MP Neil Pope as mediator.
Pope issued a document containing a package of recommendations. It included a provision that "the allocation of work to contractors will be the subject of consultation and agreement between the relevant parties" (ie. unions and management). It provided that the status quo would remain until a dispute was resolved.
This was acceptable to the ETU, AMWU and AWU, but was rejected by the company. The CFMEU was unhappy with other aspects of Pope's package, since it included cuts to jobs covered by the CFMEU.
Following further negotiations, an in-principle agreement was signed on February 11 between the AWU, ETU, AMWU and the employer that all contractors used by Yallourn Energy must have an enterprise agreement with the relevant union. On February 14, however, this agreement was put in doubt when the CFMEU announced that it did not support the agreement.
The company can now try to register their agreement with the three unions and then try to secure a separate deal with the CFMEU or it can start the dispute all over again.
The company has also acted provocatively by restricting the access of union organisers to the power station. It refused to allow the organisers to drive into the power station grounds, insisting instead that they be escorted in on foot by security guards. This led to workers stopping work for two hours on February 15 and blocking the gates with their cars.
Workers told Green Left Weekly that they believe Yallourn Energy may have made a profit from the lockout. Under the privatised electricity system, power companies can sell electricity to each other. It is possible for a company to buy electric power in advance and sell it later at a different price.
Workers suspect that Yallourn Energy bought power in advance from other companies and, once the dispute forced the price up, sold it at a profit. Kenneth Davidson, a columnist for the Melbourne Age, has expressed similar suspicions.
Workers believe that there has been collusion between the different power companies in this attack on jobs and working conditions. They also suspect involvement by workplace relations minister Peter Reith. Reith's personal secretary attended negotiations between the unions and management.