The industrial stalemate at Yallourn Power Station will only be broken if the union representing 75 locked out operators moves from its current passive protest position, according to an industrial law expert.
Employment and workplace relations expert Professor Andrew Stewart, of the University of Adelaide, said as long as both parties refuse to make compromises on key conditions within the enterprise bargaining agreement under negotiation, the next move was in the union’s court.
“If the power station continues to operate, and there is no threat to the local economy or to public health or safety, the situation is essentially in the union’s hands,” Professor Stewart said.
His comments come after the latest conciliation hearing at the Fair Work commission last Tuesday between Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and Yallourn owner-operator EnergyAustralia, concluded with both parties labelling the negotiation as a backwards step.
According to CFMEU lead negotiator Greg Hardy, EnergyAustralia negotiators told the FWA commissioner they would not agree to let workers back into the station unless they agreed to the company’s key claims without exception, a move he described as a request for “unconditional surrender”.
Mr Hardy said even if the operators were to remove power generation bans, actioned as part of protected industrial action shortly before operators were locked out on 21 June, the company indicated in the commission it would keep the lockout in place.
However, EnergyAustralia group operations manager Michael Hutchinson said the CFMEU had the right to apply for a termination of the lockout under the Fair Work Act.
“We would then enter a further period of negotiations in Fair Work and, failing an agreement, the EBA would be arbitrated by the independent umpire,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“EnergyAustralia is willing to accept the independent umpire’s decision on the final form of the agreement.”
However Mr Hardy said the union would avoid forcing FWA arbitration at all costs, as it was the same tool Yallourn used in the station’s last major industrial dispute in 2000, in which numerous conditions were stripped in a major blow to unions.
“Arbitration will only deliver the base line bare minimum for workers; it doesn’t arbitrate industry standards, and obviously would not deliver us a fair agreement and would deliver the company more of the same,” Mr Hardy said.
Professor Stewart said the Yallourn stand-off was a classic example of how the system of industrial intervention had changed over the years, from a time when independent umpires could easily step in to resolve industrial situations.
“It just sounds like you’ve got two absolutely entrenched parties, and because of the company’s strategy here, who sound very happy to take the arbitration route, the union will want to avoid that at all costs,” Professor Stewart said.