Power workers reject contracts
Maintenance workers at the Yallourn power station in Victoria returned to work under duress on Monday after the Victorian Government invoked the Electricity Industry Act to order the workers back. The workers had been on the picket line since January 10 when they were locked out by the private Yallourn Energy company in a struggle over contract labour. "These workers feel betrayed by Bracks", said Dean Mighell, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU — Electrical Division of CEPU). The use of the State Government's emergency powers unjustly threatens penalties against workers of $10,000 plus $1,000 for every subsequent day of non-compliance. Mr Mighell said the men had conceded many points to resolve the dispute, but the Government had punished them for it. "Believe me, they don't want to go back." At the time of the return to work, unions were considering extending the industrial action to other power stations and the Victorian Trades Hall Council had authorised its power industry negotiator Brian Boyd to approach affiliated unions across Victoria with a view to taking industrial action. Like BHP in the Pilbara, the British transnational PowerGem, the major shareholder of the privatised electricity generator, wants to replace its permanent, unionised workforce with non-union contractors as a means of reducing wages and working conditions. It also plans to use work teams and introduce multi-skilling, which the unions rejected as a sign that jobs would be shed. Unions have been trying to negotiate an enterprise agreement with the company for months but Yallourn Energy refused to budge on its demands which threaten the jobs of the existing workforce. The unions placed workbans ("protected action" under the Workplace Relations Act) in support of their rights, and Yallourn Energy responded by locking them out. Since then a picket line has been maintained with the workers refusing to return to work until forced to do so by the State Labor Government's drastic action. The locked out workers, around 80 out of a total workforce of 500, are mostly members of the ETU, Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, and Australian Workers' Union. Company persists with offensive The dispute was on the verge of resolution at the beginning of this week, when at the last minute, management pulled out of a mediated settlement, indicating its intention to fight the union head-on until it gets its way with contract labour. Both the employer and the unions had agreed to accept the recommendations of a mediator, Neil Pope, who was appointed by the Victorian Government. After exhaustive negotiations, going right through Sunday night to Monday morning, agreement was reached on a settlement. Mr Mighell told The Guardian that the union accepted "for better or for worse" all the outcomes of the mediation, even though they weren't all favourable to the union. The union was satisfied with what the settlement had produced regarding contract workers and it was planning to recommend it to its members at a mass meeting on the Monday afternoon that they endorse the settlement. However, Yallourn Energy hours later did an about-face, and rejected the settlement which did not give them their key demand for individual contracts. Mr Pope had rejected the use of contractors to replace the existing workforce and said that the company should negotiate with and try to reach agreement with the unions on issues. Mr Pope was furious when he learnt second hand that the company had rejected the settlement document. Mr Pope said that the company's behaviour called into question just how genuine it had been in trying to reach agreement. The company has taken the dispute to the Industrial Relations Commission where it is trying to end the bargaining period and have the Commission arbitrate. The Victorian Government used the blackouts and power restrictions in Victoria (and South Australia) to invoke the emergency powers. Yallourn normally supplies around 20 per cent of Victoria's electricity needs. With a heat wave last week, the strain on the power supply network caused breakdowns at Hazelwood power station and the Loy Yang generator. South Australia, which relies on the Victorian electricity grid for 30 per cent of its power needs, was also affected by the breakdowns. In Victoria, small industry and residential areas have been subjected to systematic blackouts in a bid to relieve the strain on the supply system. Big business and poker machines have been allowed to continue operations where possible. Labor Premier Steve Bracks was frustrated by the Workplace Relations Act which has reduced the powers of the Commission and Government in disputes. The former Kennett Coalition Government abolished the State's industrial tribunal and ceded its industrial relations powers to the Federal Government. Bracks has proposed legislating to re-establish a state industrial relations commission and to give the Government the power to intervene in industrial disputes. Unions reluctantly agreed to abide by the Government's return-to-work order but they have not given up the fight for their rights to collectively bargain and to secure employment. The Yallourn dispute is yet another rejection by workers and the trade union movement of individual work contracts. It is also a direct consequence of the privatisation of Victorian Energy by the Kennett Government and the dictatorial attitude of the private owners.