Just months after an Electrical Trades Union (ETU) victory against Carlton and United Breweries, a much larger battle looms over Melbourne’s industrial landscape.
In early July, the behemoth Crown Casino laid off its entire electrical workforce. Like the Carlton brewery before it, the casino has tendered an electric gaming contract to the poker machine supplier Amtek. Just three weeks ago Amtek advertised the new casino positions, with wages set at 50% of the old salary.
The ETU has promised the mother of battles at Crown Casino; something which has not been seen since 20,000 protestors blockaded Crown Casino at the 2000 World Economic Forum.
The union is gearing up for a long and protracted campaign against the sacking of 126 workers who previously earned $76,527 a year. The ETU said: “The technicians who have been doing the work for 20 years have been told they can't apply for the new jobs — and their replacements will be on half the pay (just under $36,000).”
The twist in the Crown story is slightly unnerving: Amtek is directed by Jeff Kennett and Crown itself was Kennett’s baby. Infamous for legalising gambling and privatising the public sector, Kennet is considered the free market Margaret Thatcher of Victoria. With Kennett’s blessing, in the 1990s Crown took over Melbourne’s South Bank.
The ETU said: “Working people remember Jeff Kennett. He was the Liberal Premier of Victoria for almost a decade in the 1990s. He privatised public services like electricity and TAB, and sacked thousands of TAFE and school teachers. Kennett also granted Crown Casino their first licence, and opened the casino as Premier.
“So what's he doing now? He's formed a company, Amtek, to take over pokie maintenance for Crown.”
Until last year, Kennett led the mental health group Beyond Blue for 11 years. He remained an Amtek company director during his Beyond Blue tenure, sparking concerns of a conflict of interest. Kennett was long criticised for hypocrisy, after the legalisation of gambling and poker machines saw mental health issues soar in the 1990s and 2000s. Studies suggest 17% of suicidal Victorians admitted to hospital were problem gamblers.
Long-time critic of Kennett and gambling, Senator Nick Xenophon is calling for disclosure of interests by way of the parliamentary pensions system. In response to the Crown dispute, he said: "Ex-politicians, particularly if they are continuing to receive a pension from taxpayers, ought to disclose the details of their business dealings which are related to their previous parliamentary duties."
Crown itself conducted an "extensive operational review and procurement process" and found Amtek “suitable and experienced”. Yet, Amtek is not considered a leader in its field, nor is it considered “experienced”. In an online job advertisement for one of the Crown Casino gaming positions on June 27, the company admitted “Amtek is a young, successful, rapidly growing company”.
While the Fair Work Act allows unionist employees to reapply for the job, Amtek applicants must possess professional job skills such as “Certificate, Diploma or Degree qualifications” and a “Casino Special Employee Licence”. It also asks for “flexibility in working hours.” The ETU believes the job criteria allows Crown and Amtek to circumvent the Fair Work Act.
On the tender and the sackings the ETU said “Having a Casino in your state has many downsides — but at least we thought we could have good, secure jobs from it.
"But if Jeff Kennett is allowed to extend his war on Victorians into another decade, we won't even have those. Let's fight the Kennett–Crown deal. Let's teach these guys a lesson.”
A battle at Crown is a gamble for both sides: Crown and Amtek face multi-million dollar losses from strikes and blockades; ETU members face job cuts and cuts to family income. But the recent reinstatement of ETU workers on full pay after the long CUB dispute demonstrates the success of union boldness. More broadly, there now seems to be a real contest in a hyper-casualised age where contracts are becoming "Uberised".
Just where Labor, a friend of Crown and friend of the unions, stands on this issue is unknown.
What is understood is that last year the Daniel Andrews government rewarded Crown with a licence for a new Casino Tower. Critics suggest the licence is a repayment for election support from Crown Casino owner James Packer, who directly supported the Andrews election campaign.
Packer, Kennett, Crown — old and nepotistic names from the past; Melbourne oligarchs are about to find themselves facing union, progressive and activist forces.