After a 100 day lockout, 75 workers at the Yallourn power station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley are celebrating a significant win.
After a bruising industrial fight more than a decade ago, Yallourn workers were left with the worst enterprise agreement in Australia’s power generation industry. The workers and their union have clawed back some of this lost ground, in a major dispute which has lessons for workers everywhere.
Luke van der Meulen is the Secretary of the Latrobe Valley branch of the CFMEU (the Mining and Energy Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union). He explained to Red Flag that the resolution includes a 5 percent annual pay rise across the four year agreement. They also scored an important advance on job security, locking in a clause that prevents workers being replaced by contractors.
There was also a big win on working arrangements, which had previously been governed only by “guidelines” which sat outside the enterprise agreement and could be changed at the whim of the boss.
“They were full of [phrases such as] ‘the employer’s best endeavours’… they really didn’t protect the workers at all. Now we’ve got a set of working arrangements that are in the EBA. They cover things like rosters, classifications, skills, numbers [of workers], all the things that a roster worker needs to give them certainty,” he explained.
And crucially, a much improved dispute settlement procedure allows the union to actually enforce the terms of the agreement at the Fair Work Commission, rather than the previous situation where “you could talk to the boss, and then you could go between the boss and a higher level supervisor, and then the union official could get involved, but it basically led to nowhere”.
Even with these gains, the new agreement falls short of the conditions at other Latrobe Valley power stations such as Loy Yang A and Hazelwood, the product of the historically strong union organisation in the Victorian power industry.
As Luke van der Meulen explains: “If anyone wanted to look at the best agreement in the country they could either go to the Loy Yang A agreement or the Hazelwood agreement. I would challenge anyone to find a better agreement in the country than those two.”
“The Yallourn agreement isn’t on a par with those. But now at least it’s not the worst power industry agreement in the country. It would be up there with the better agreements now, as a result of these 75 members sticking out this hundred day lockout and telling the boss, we are serious about this ...”
Luke explains that winning the dispute depended on an active union membership: “Right from the outset, we made it pretty plain to our members, that this wasn’t a bunch of 75 blokes sitting in a tent around a fire being angry. This was about a bunch of people who were first of all going to get their families, and their children, and their neighbours involved, and get them understanding what’s going on and get their support.”
“Our members’ wives and their families quickly surrounded them with support. And any time you went on to the protest line there were normally women there as well. There were women bringing food, there were women at rallies, and it was women who got the facebook page going, they got community events going… And I think that degree of resolve from not only our members but their families was a contributing factor to turning the whole thing around.”
“Then we surrounded them with different events, rallies, Father Bob [Maguire, the well known Melbourne Catholic priest], people doing billboards not only in the Latrobe Valley, but we were regularly attending the corporate headquarters in Melbourne with billboards, we were doing all sorts of events. So it wasn’t just the guys getting bored and worn down. On a day to day basis they were coming up with new ideas, their families would come up with new ideas, it was really dynamic.”
“I think the company believed that once they locked out the workers on the 21st of June, that by about the 28th of June the workers would be on their knees begging to be able to come back in. But I think the company realised that as weeks went on, our members resolve grew, our members’ ability to get support grew, the community support grew.
Luke goes on, “[t]hat rally in Melbourne [on August 16] was very important ... Our ability to get the funds to be able to support the blue was growing … So I think they realised that the members’ resolve was growing not diminishing.”
In terms of wider lessons for workers in the power industry, Luke draws on the experience of the CFMEU during the 1990s, when the formerly state-owned power industry was privatised under Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett.
“Our members, our union, the CFMEU, resisted the then Kennett government for all it was worth. We were really active in the Public First campaign, we didn’t do any deals with our bosses, we didn’t agree to contracting out our jobs, and we really tried to show Victorian power generating industry workers that a union united can save and protect working conditions.”
“The way forward isn’t to do grubby deals with these foreign corporations, selling off your members’ conditions in order to maintain a presence in the industry. You’ve got to take a principled stance. And if you do that your members will stand behind you. And if you achieve those two things you’ll maintain and improve your working conditions. And there’s no reason anyone should be jealous or mad at us for that.”
“The sorts of conditions that we’ve got, the result we got out of this Yallourn blue, is not because we’re smart talkers or great negotiators. When it comes to a fight we know how to fight and we would encourage other unions to join us in that attitude – to bloody well have a go.”
Finally, asked about the lessons of the Yallourn dispute for workers facing an Abbott government, Luke responds in the same way: “I reckon the recent Yallourn lockout is a really good example of how to deal with an Abbott government which is the same way you deal with a Gillard government or a John Smith government or a Joe Blow government.”
“I think there’s a lot of people talking about good unionism and rah rah, but there’s a lot of talk and not much action. I think we’re going to have to get into some serious action to maintain our working conditions.”
“Multinational corporations are all working in a cooperative way through their industry groups, their unions… At the end of the day, workers need to rely on themselves and on their unions, and unions need to rely on other unions… we need to work out what solidarity really means.”