‘Gut-wrenching’ blow

Related coverage: Yallourn tensions boil

As one of the operators locked out of Yallourn Power Station on Friday, Charlie* has reached a “gut-wrenching” career low.

“Friday was definitely one of the lowest blows in my career – everyone’s been feeling sick in the stomach about it since it happened,” he said.

Talking to The Express on the condition of anonymity, Charlie, a long term Yallourn employee, is one of about 75 power station operators represented by the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, adjusting to the reality of an indefinite lockout.

Despite having first-hand experience – Charlie was locked out of the station in a damaging industrial stoush in early 2000 which broke unions and crippled power supplies in a workforce overhaul which cost the operation $150 million – he said Friday’s events were no less confronting.

After automatic generation control was disabled at 5am, industrial action began in earnest, with operators refusing to operate units above 200 megawatts, preventing the usual ramp-up for morning peak electricity demand; station management was quick to respond.

Official lockout notification was distributed to workforce unions at 9am, while a pre-trained replacement team, accompanied by Yallourn executive manager Mark Pearson, arrived in the central control room soon after.

Marching orders, effective at noon, were physically handed out to the 12 operators still manning their consoles, while the remaining workforce were phoned at home (an employee on holiday in Rome is understood to have received his orders at 3am European time).

“They were in there not five minutes, telling an operator how exactly we were going to get locked out, and that’s when it happened – all hell broke loose,” Charlie said.

Alarms sounded throughout the building; a high voltage circuit breaker in a room some 500 metres away had suffered a major electrical fault, sparking a localised fire, tripping the three online generators like a plane’s engine cutting out en route.

Charlie described the scene as “sheer pandemonium”.

“Every operator and CFMEU member was in the room at the time; yet the first thing Mark Pearson did was start throwing around accusations that it was one of us who did it, but he was quickly taken to task on that,” he said.

“But they all had to just stand back and let us bring the generators down safely,” Charlie said, only hinting at the complexities involved when winding down the operation of a generator aborted mid-flight.

At 11.30am, with the situation under relative control, the operators reluctantly handed over the controls to the “scabs” – a traditional derogatory term used by unions for workers who stay on during industrial action.

The operators left the site without fanfare; their access cards disabled, preventing re-entry into the site.

With EnergyAustralia’s lockout notice indefinite, in line with the current enterprise bargaining impasse, Charlie and his fellow the power station operators will go now without pay.

For Charlie, Friday’s control room stand-off was only too characteristic of ongoing tensions within the workforce.

“It’s a terrible environment in there; people that were once quite close – and I’m talking best men at weddings close – don’t even talk to each other anymore,” he said.

Unsure what the immediate future will bring, or whether it will reach the destructive heights seen in 2000, Charlie said as long as the impasse lasts, the company has a fight on its hands.

“The biggest test of the workers’ resolve is a secret ballot; we held our last ballot in June – 10 months after all this started – and that still returned result in the high nineties (per cent) – if you needed any yardstick of solidarity then that’s it right there, and everyone will see that in the coming weeks I think,” he said.

* Charlie is an assumed name to protect the worker’s identity.