Mobil maintenance workers win uneasy truce
by Peter Mac Maintenance workers at Mobil Oil's Adelaide refinery have won an agreement from the company over the long-running issue of the number of maintenance workers employed at the plant. The company had wanted to cut the number of full-time positions from 31 to 12 as soon as possible, but in the face of imminent industrial action a compromise was reached where 20 employees would be retained, with 10 retrenched over a three-year period. As reported recently in The Guardian, the company had been accused of having trained a group of non-union strike-breakers in Sydney to operate the Adelaide plant, with a view to flying them in by helicopter if industrial action took place as a result of the current dispute. Although Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott described the accusations as "union paranoia, he also made it clear that the Federal Government supported the company, declaring that "companies are entitled to manage their own workforces in ways which are consistent with their judgement of the economic interests of the company. Evidence of the company's plans obtained by the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union included copies of mysterious advertisements for petrochemical maintenance employees, with a contact number at Sydney's very private American International School. Although some Mobil company representatives subsequently denied the accusations, the maintenance manager of the Adelaide plant refused to do so during discussions with unions, noting only that "I will not lie, but I will not answer your questions. If implemented, such a plan would have distinct similarities to the 1998 waterfront dispute, during which, it was later revealed, the government and the stevedoring company Patrick's had initiated a plan to train a strikebreaking force in Dubai, with a view to taking over the jobs of the company's employees. The situation also has some similarities with that prevailing at the Longford petrochemical works in Victoria several years ago, prior to a series of devastating explosions which caused a shutdown of the plant, loss of life and severe injuries, and a crisis in energy generation throughout Victoria. The subsequent Longford inquiry concluded that one of the key factors contributing to that disaster was the lack of operational maintenance at the plant, in particular the reduction in numbers of maintenance personnel employed there. It would seem that the Mobil management is determined to ignore the lessons of history.