Earlier this year, the now deposed head of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, Nigel Hadgkiss, and employment minister Michaelia Cash attempted to extend the powers of the ABCC into essential services. For most of its existence, the anti-union ABCC and Labor’s similar body, Fair Work Building and Construction, had oversight only of the construction industry.
But the 2017 law that reintroduced the ABCC tried to extend its reach into other sectors like power, water, sewage and telecommunications. The only way out of the ABCC’s grip for these industries would be if the body itself approved an “essential services” exemption.
SA Power Networks (SAPN) – privatised in 1999 – is the largest power line distribution company in South Australia. It applied for and was refused an exemption by Hadgkiss. According to the ABCC’s decision, only part of SAPN – its distribution arm – would be exempt from the ABCC. However, the part of the company – now named Enerven – that builds infrastructure and supplies power to major projects including the National Broadband Network, would not be, opening up a new front in the ABCC’s war on unions.
In response, the Electrical Trades Union came out swinging, bringing officials from New South Wales, Queensland, the ACT and Western Australia to aid the local Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) and the Australian Services Union (ASU) in the fight. The strategy was threefold: one, a depot-by-depot organising campaign to build union membership, involve the rank and file and work towards a mass rally in the Adelaide CBD. Two, a big media campaign across all media, including social media. The final front was a legal challenge in the Federal Court and lobbying of politicians Australia-wide, including the main target, Nick Xenophon, whose vote helped secured the reintroduction of the ABCC.
The outcome was positive. Membership was boosted and new, younger delegates came to the fore alongside experienced militants. Outrage at the prospect of the ABCC controlling the sector went industry wide after the depot visits, and the media campaign resulted in public support rallying behind the workers. The feeling was that, although it would be an uphill battle against the federal government, the campaign could win.
Outside of Xenophon’s electorate office on 21 July, hundreds of unionists and supporters, including the local Socialist Alternative branch, came to stand in solidarity with power industry workers. The rally was a great success and boosted further the belief that we could beat the ABCC.
A month after the rally, on 21 August, news came through that the code had been amended. The laws were changed to read that essential services “must” be exempt. The Federal Court challenge was no longer needed. It seemed as if victory had come.
Now, nearly three months later, we’re bargaining for a new enterprise agreement with SAPN. The company is yet to apply formally for the exemption, despite promises that it will. It is not in the interest of the bosses to apply for an exemption from the laws that allow them to reduce workers’ rights and limit the ability to organise. From our side, the CEPU is pressing the company to get the exemption and for it to apply to both of its arms.
SAPN workers are standard setters in South Australia because of the size of the workforce and union density. Alarmingly, Enerven has poor union membership numbers and has been more difficult to organise. This has put a halt to industry wide bargaining.
While a victory was won in South Australia, the battle against the ABCC and for better wages and conditions for all workers is far from over.