WHEN more than 100 Yallourn power station employees were unexpectedly sent home with pay at 2pm last Wednesday, initial uncertainty was quickly overcome by the prospect of the afternoon off.
For the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, which is leading ongoing enterprise bargaining negotiations for 120 station employees, it was a blind siding tactical move which gave station operator EnergyAustralia a strategic advantage in the ongoing dispute.
“The company will be grinning like Cheshire cats after that little manoeuvre,” CFMEU’s lead negotiator Greg Hardy said.
At 3pm on Wednesday afternoon, two employees were due to commence a stoppage – a refusal by employees to work – as part of protected industrial action approved by Fair Work Australia.
Under the Fair Work Act, employees must commence approved industrial actions within 30 days of declaration, or lose the right to perform that action for the enterprise agreement negotiation period.
With the 30-day qualification period ending on Saturday, the stoppage was to come as a mere formality, activating the option for future use.
But with the entire team of eligible power station workers sent home an hour earlier, no one was on site to action the stoppage.
And with a requirement for workers to notify management of planned stoppages seven days in advance, time had run out, effectively stripping employees of a vital tool in their negotiation tool box.
According to a power station employee, who wished to remain anonymous amid renewed “stern” warnings against employees contacting the media, the unexpected walking orders had come at lunchtime.
“They told us we were all getting sent home at 2pm because the hierarchy were going into meetings about the enterprise bargaining going on, and we couldn’t be on site without them being available,” the employee said.
“It was highly unusual to get sent home for the rest of the day with pay; the excuse was we couldn’t work while unsupervised, but the hierarchy are always in their offices anyway, so that didn’t make sense.
“Everyone became pretty suspicious as to what was going on, and there aren’t many of us who trust them; it’s all been smoke and mirrors around this joint.”
According to information supplied by EnergyAustralia, company and contractor maintenance employees were allowed to finish 1.5 hours earlier than usual due to a meeting between maintenance team leaders and work group supervisors.
“This was quite clearly a stalling distraction by the company who are throwing chairs and furniture in the way of this whole process; they sent home more than 100 workers when perhaps three people would have went home in that stoppage,” Mr Hardy said.
However an EnergyAustralia spokeswoman said the company had been committed to negotiating in “good faith” with workers.
“We strongly believe that industrial action by the CFMEU is not in the interests of the health and competitiveness of the Yallourn operation and the approximately 500 jobs we support on site. These are all important jobs for the local community,” the spokeswoman said.
“We don’t understand why the CFMEU has taken industrial action.”
Industrial law expert Professor Andrew Stewart of the University of Adelaide said the move, if motivated by stalling tactics, had created a “messy legal position”.
“This is a classic example of how not to get a dispute resolved, which is to end up resorting to very legal manoeuvring for the rest of the process; while this is not a criticism of a company, when it gets to this point when lawyers are driving things it is never a good place to be,” Professor Stewart said.
“There is nothing illegal about this particular tactic, which is essentially a form of lockout, and there are potential ways that the unions can respond if this is a breach of ‘good faith’.
“The lawyers will certainly make their money out of this, but it is hard to see if this does anything to bring parties together to resolve their dispute.”
Mr Hardy said the CFMEU was currently exploring options for a 30-day extension to action the stoppage option.
Meanwhile, the CFMEU is preparing to mount a legal challenge in the Federal Court, in response to a successful Supreme Court injunction against power generation bans at the station.
Workers had been reducing generation at the 1450 megawatt plant by 30 per cent from 4pm and 6pm everyday since 1 March as part of industrial action ratified by Fair Work Australia.
However a subsequent injunction application against the generation bans by EnergyAustralia was granted last week, after the company failed twice to halt the bans in Fair Work hearings.