THE Latrobe Valley harbours a rich tradition of industrial action in the power sector.
During the privatisation of the industry, it was unions who fought tooth and nail for workers’ rights, which more often than not became a futile battle.
Thousands of jobs were lost in the name of efficiency. However, it was this hard fought action which made the envious conditions and wages enjoyed by those lucky enough to be directly employed by power companies what they are today.
Yallourn operator EnergyAustralia group executive manager operations and construction Michael Hutchinson said a recent recruitment drive for operator trainees attracted 300 applications.
However with more than a decade having passed since the power sector’s last walkout (numerous power industry sources struggle to recall the last walkout) yesterday’s stoppage at Yallourn has attracted considerable attention.
The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, which sees the strategy as a “test of wills”, has labelled the move “significant”, while EnergyAustralia has condemned it as “extreme” and “unnecessary”.
Yesterday’s action, protected by Fair Work Australia, comes after months of legal wrangling in front of full bench commissions, and has survived numerous derailment attempts by EnergyAustralia.
The jousting comes after the company successfully forced a Supreme Court injunction on generation bans undertaken as part of earlier industrial action at the station last month, after which the CFMEU pursued its options in the Federal Court.
For industrial relations expert Professor Andrew Stewart of the University of Adelaide, it has been a saga of legal manoeuvring not seen since the turn of the century – during industrial action at the very same power station.
“I reckon Yallourn was the last time we had the kind of competition between state and federal courts or tribunals as to whether industrial action is legal… I recall it all getting quite heated and messy,” Prof Stewart said.
“It’s open to either parties to go to the Fair Work Commission and argue whether either party is conducting themselves in good faith… but this is all a game of chess which ultimately benefits the lawyers on the sidelines and not players.”