For the third time since the Victorian government sold off the Yallourn power station in 1996, Yallourn power workers have been locked out of their workplace. In 2000, the workers were locked out for seven weeks.
Yallourn power station’s owner, Energy Australia, locked out all 75 shift operators at midday on June 21 after the workers began industrial action by limiting power output.
They are not being paid and are not accruing any leave or service. Even operators who were on holidays or sick leave have had their pay stopped. The company has locked the workers out indefinitely.
The shift operators are all members of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) Mining and Energy division.
Only CFMEU-member shift operators are locked out. All other Yallourn workers are being paid as normal.
Normally, when there are no operators on site, the station would be shut down. This time, the company has chosen to take the risky action of keeping the plant running with management representatives operating the boilers and turbines. These management representatives and other workers are doing massive amounts of overtime to keep the plant running.
The shift operators have been trying to negotiate a new enterprise bargaining agreement with the company for more than 12 months.
The company targeted the CFMEU members because they were the only ones taking protected industrial action in pursuit of a new enterprise agreement.
Workers were frustrated with negotiations over a new agreement because the company refused to properly consider the union’s claims.
In February, between 92-97% of CFMEU members voted in favour of taking industrial action.
Protected industrial action began on February 20 and has been taken on and off since then.
After having lost important working conditions in 2000, the workers were keen to win back some of those lost conditions, which are common in other power stations.
CFMEU mining and energy division Victorian district president Luke van der Meulen told Green Left Weekly that after workers were locked out, a union meeting on June 24 had a discussion about whether to hold out or to go back to the company cap in hand.
The members unanimously voted to maintain their action and set up a protest camp on the road leading into the power station on June 25.
Van der Meulen said one of the critical issues in the dispute was to have a clause in the agreement on “genuine consultation where the company can’t make major changes without the agreement of the workers.” Van der Meulen said this clause is important in the current electricity industry, where there is fear about the future of jobs due to carbon pricing.
“We need a decent consultation process in our agreement. We need a good dispute settlement clause,” he said.
“The company is saying it should only deal with issues in the agreement whereas the union is saying it needs to be broader. For example, one issue is that when workers park their cars at work, the cars get covered with acid rain from the station.
“Also, the agreement has to deal with the effects of shift work.
“Staffing levels need fixing. Currently, people who are 24/7 shift workers can’t get leave because of a lack of numbers on the shift rosters. The company needs to employ more workers so they can get leave,” he said.
Yallourn already has the lowest number of operators per unit in the Latrobe Valley.
“The majority of the CFMEU members work shift work — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — so these conditions are very important to them, whereas the other unions don’t cover shift workers.
“There’s also an operations guidelines document that sits outside the agreement. We want the guidelines cleaned up and put in the EBA so people have certainty.
“The company wants to downgrade some classifications and reduce numbers.
“Workers will accept the going rate on wages for the power industry, if we can get the conditions,” van der Meulen said. The going rate is about a 5% a year increase nationally. In Victoria it is about a 6.1% a year increase.
Shortly after the lockout began, the company blamed a fire in the station on disgruntled workers. The union responded that the poor staffing levels led to lack of maintenance.
Van der Meulen said: “the fire was a result of lack of maintenance. The company said it will investigate the fire. The union has asked how it can get involved in the investigation. I doubt that we will hear any more about the investigation because any investigation would find out that the fire was a result of lack of maintenance.”
When negotiations began last year, all the unions were united in a single bargaining unit. The other unions at the station are the Electrical Trades Union, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Australian Workers Union and Australian Services Union which cover the 25 workers at the station.
This year the bargaining unit disbanded, leaving the CFMEU as the only union taking industrial action.
Van der Meulen described an aspect of the privatisation process in the Latrobe Valley that has an impact on unions taking industrial action.
He said: “When the Kennett government sold off the power stations to the private sector, the government secretly agreed to ‘forced majeure’ clauses guaranteeing that the Victorian government would fully compensate the power companies if industrial action costs them more than a certain amount of electricity. In the case of Yallourn power station, the trigger point for the Victorian government paying up is 530 megawatts.
The state government is preparing legislation to stop power workers from taking even protected industrial action.
Workers have set up a protest camp on Eastern Road adjacent to the power station, which they are occupying around the clock. Messages of support, visitors and donations of food would be appreciated.