A LOCKOUT of Yallourn Power Station’s union members is the “obvious option” for operator EnergyAustralia, if it wants to break industrial deadlock at the station, a leading industrial law expert has said.
Employment law and workplace relations expert Professor Andrew Stewart, of the University of Adelaide, told The Express as long as both sides refused to budge from the current enterprise agreement negotiation impasse, the ‘Qantas option’ was one of company’s most likely next moves.
“The company will undoubtedly have been thinking about this option for some time, because it’s impossible to believe that they are so poorly advised they haven’t been looking at this strategy,” Professor Stewart said.
In October 2001, Qantas grounded its entire fleet during a two-day worker lockout, after months of industrial action began to cost the company up to $15 million every week.
Due to the crippling impact the grounding had on the national economy, Fair Work Australia arbitrarily intervened at the request of the Federal Government, terminating all industrial action from both sides, forcing the dispute to be settled before FWA.
Professor Stewart said while the immediate impact of a Yallourn lockout would have a far less severe economical impact than the Qantas incident, he said a prolonged lockout could eventually force FWA arbitration.
“The impact of a lockout doesn’t have to be nation wide – if there is a significant threat to either the health and safety of the workforce, or to a significant part of the local economy, it can trigger the availability of arbitration,” Professor Stewart said.
In a subsequent finding in August, a FWA full bench found in favour of Qantas on a number of pay and working conditions, including pay claims and use of contract ground staff.
“On the basis of what happened in the Qantas cases, (EnergyAustralia) could feel optimistic about getting out of arbitration with a positive result,” Professor Stewart said.
However, he said a different ruling could have been made if the full bench constituted of different members.
The Yallourn impasse developed over the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union’s demands for conditions within a new EA, including worker security guarantees and a ‘consult and agree’ clause, under which the company would be required to seek the workforce’s approval for major changes at the station.
Professor Stewart said the union’s best option would be to continue drawing out the process as long as possible to bring the company to consider the agreement clauses.
Eligible workers are currently being asked to vote on a counter-agreement offered directly to employees by EnergyAustralia, in an attempt to bypass the CFMEU and break the deadlock, however unions have pledged the offer will be voted down.
Assuming a failed vote, Professor Stewart said an interim course of action would be to offer separate agreements to the power station’s 34 maintenance workers, represented by unions other than the CFMEU, however he noted the strategy would be ‘problematic’.
“When production workers and maintenance have historically been under the one agreement, it will be hard for the company to argue for the workforce to be split – even if it sounds logical,” Professor Stewart said.
“But that option would only be worth doing if it believes it can persuade maintenance workers unions to vote it up.”
Australian Manufacturing Workers Union representative Steve Dodd said in the face of such a proposal, his union would honour the ‘Single Bargaining Unit’ – under which all five unions are designed to negotiate as one entity – and reject the offer.
CFMEU lead negotiator Greg Hardy was unavailable for comment, however energy and mining Victorian president Luke van der Meulen said EnergyAustralia had an option other than locking out workers.
“The other option is very clear, they can return to the bargaining table,” Mr van der Meulen said.
EnergyAustralia group executive manager operations and construction Michael Hutchinson reiterated previously made comments the company was focused on the employee ballot.
“We are seeking an agreement that balances our ability to run the business in difficult times ahead with retaining the strong protections for employees that are already in place,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“Protracted industrial action would impact Yallourn’s bottom line and would limit our ability to pay for a range of items including a future EBA.
“If the ballot isn’t successful, we will re-evaluate our options but won’t be speculating on what they are.”