A workforce divided

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Yallourn power station will this week focus on healing workforce relationship wounds after one of the Latrobe Valley’s most damaging industrial disputes ended late last week.

In an effort to cool bad blood built up during the epic industrial stoush between station owner EnergyAustralia and its operator workforce, which was locked out without pay for more than three months, an external relationship management firm has been sought to facilitate the healing process.

While operators expressed collective relief the 13-month fight for a new enterprise agreement was finally over after informally voting in favour of a proposed offer from EnergyAustralia on Friday, there was widespread apprehension about returning to a workforce divided by the controversial dispute.

“I’m really not looking forward to going back in there because it’s not going to be pretty; to be honest I’ve already been looking at my other work options right now, that’s how damaging this has been,” one worker said, who cannot be named due to workplace media restrictions.

While the bitter negotiation was already unpopular among much of the mine and station workforce, the long-running tensions were ratcheted up when the operators were locked out on 21 June and replaced with stand-in workers to continue power generation at the plant, some of which included former workmates.

Workers said the reluctance of 40 maintenance workers, also covered by the hard-fought agreement, to take industrial action through the dispute, would be a source of friction.

When phoned for comment about the cessation of the power industry’s longest lockout, EnergyAustralia group director operations Michael Hutchinson was quick to express feelings of “trepidation”, “hope” and “nervousness” about the divided workforce.

“I guess you’ve got to try and be a bit optimistic and have hope, and not underestimate the challenge of bringing people back together after a long dispute,” Mr Hutchinson said.

“We are hoping to get a facilitator in with experience of following on with these sorts of disputes and situations, in helping people deal with their emotions and anger and resentfulness (although) it’s not necessarily about getting people to like each other, that may be a bridge too far.”

Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union mining and energy president Luke van der Muelen said the Valley’s large employers should take note of the damage a lock out could inflict on a workforce.

The operators, who were due to recommence their inclusion on the Yallourn payroll at 7am this morning, will start on rostered shifts next Monday.

Maintenance unions are due to meet with workers to discuss their position on the in-principle agreement on Wednesday.