Luke’s long-lasting union with the Latrobe Valley

IT was at the advent of the power industry’s privatisation that Luke van der Meulen became an unintentional unionist.

Working as a unit controller at Loy Yang and armed with an associate engineering supervision qualification, he was certain to become an advanced engineer.

But when the State Electricity Commission of Victoria announced plans to cut 20 per cent of its 22,000 workers in 1988, he reluctantly stood for the honorary position of the FEDFA sub-branch, which later became the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

“If you want a history of the Latrobe Valley power industry, I’ve been involved in every power industry negotiation since 1989,” Mr van der Meulen said, reflecting on his career at the Latrobe Valley’s CFMEU.

“Not some, all of them.”

Tomorrow will mark Mr van der Meulen’s final day as president of the CFMEU Victorian District mining and energy division, a role he has held since 2001.

From a scantly publicised ‘Rally in the Valley’ protest in 1990 attracting 4000 workers, family members and the community opposing proposed privatisation plans, to the historical 100-day lockout at Yallourn in 2013, he’s fought to maintain Latrobe Valley jobs against the odds.

The self-described “activist” has combatted for better worker conditions in countless enterprise bargaining agreements, campaigned against workforce casualisation and foreign contractors to keep jobs local and sought political support for future industries and a transition to a diversified regional economy.

Few stories better show his resolve than the Yallourn W enterprise bargaining agreement that escalated to an industrial blackout across Victoria in 2000.

Mr van der Meulen remembers members holding a mass meeting at the Morwell Bowling Club calling for the immediate shut down of all power stations.

As generators wound down, he brokered a deal with then Member for McMillan Christian Zahra and former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks from his home telephone to protect workers from being sued if they returned to work.

But the following morning, writs were issued to 13 employees and unionists, including a $40 million dollar indictment and injunctions against him, later dropped in 2002.

“It was serious, but the Commissioner who terminated the agreement later said to me, ‘Do you know where I was the night you shut down the power industry? I was having dinner out with my wife and everything went black’.”

Still, he says he has always done everything to avoid industrial disputes.

“The power stations are big companies that are heavily resourced with many people at their beck and call,” Mr van der Meulen said.

“It should be avoided at all costs, but if you have to have a blue, you have to have a blue and be completely committed to it.”

Born in the Netherlands in the mining town of Valkenburg, Mr van der Meulen’s Latrobe Valley childhood began when his father moved to work at the gas and fuel factory as a payroll officer.

Never one for “regimentation”, he said he struggled in the Catholic education system attending St Vincent’s Primary School and later Morwell Technical High School.

He could barely read when he left school and found work at Lyndale Poultry farm in Morwell bagging chicken manure for six-pence and the Alexandra Road sawmill before securing an apprenticeship at the SECV when he was 16 years old.

In his second year of his boilermaker apprenticeship at the Morwell workshops, key union delegate and leader of the 13-week 1977 maintenance strike, Sammy Armstrong, taught him how to read.

Mr van der Meulen said the renowned communist never put anything political in front of him, but taught him how to read the headlines in the ‘brew room’ and engaged him in anti-war thinking and activism.

He remembers Sammy musing, “I don’t know why they’re sending all these soldiers to Vietnam to kill communists 3000 miles away when they’re bypassing me 100 miles away from Melbourne”.

“I went from not being able to wait to get there (Vietnam) to becoming a protestor and being involved in the early moratorium against the Vietnam War,” Mr van der Meulen said.

Although never identifying as a communist, Mr van der Meulen’s political views and opinions have not always been readily accepted.

Looking at the privatisation of global economies under politicians such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and United States President Ronald Reagan, Mr van der Meulen said he could foresee the privatisation of the power industry to others’ dismay.

“People called me a ‘knuckle dragger’, a Neanderthal and a fool. I couldn’t get anyone to listen to anything I had to say.”

In 1996 he stood for the seat of McMillan as a Greens candidate against Labor’s Barry Cunningham and the SECV’s “pain today for gain tomorrow” privatisation slogan.

He said the Greens’ principles of democracy, peace and social justice resonated with him.

“In those days, if you were breathing and upright… they were that desperate for candidates,” Mr van der Meulen joked.

Despite environmental policies like carbon pricing posing a threat to local jobs, he has also been a long-time advocate of the region’s transition to renewable technologies.

Sitting down with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the CFMEU Latrobe Valley headquarters in Morwell in 2011, he stressed his support for a carbon trading scheme hinged on a community not to be left behind again.

He believes many of his views deemed “idiotic” at the time turned out to be right, including the injustice of the Vietnam War and a long-term transition away from coal.

“My members have not always wanted to be represented this way, and it’s a bit of a paternalistic view, but I feel it’s in their long-term interest,” he said.

“I’ve always been convinced of the problems of CO2 emissions before (joining) the Greens and long before I was in a union office.”

Outside the confines of the wooden-panelled, 1960s boardrooms of the former SECV that became the CFMEU headquarters at Lignite Court, Morwell, Mr van der Meulen has also advocated for mine regulation, rehabilitation and a transitioned economy away from coal mining.

Long before the reopened Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry addressed mine rehabilitation last year, he attributed disasters like the closure of the Princes Highway tumbling into the Hazelwood mine, the catastrophic collapse of the Latrobe River into the Yallourn coal mine and the Hazelwood mine fire as examples of State Government due-diligence failures.

“We publicly highlighted that it was not a case of the Latrobe River flooding and bursting its banks, but an instance of the state regulator failing to stop the mine encroaching on the river under the mine,” Mr van der Meulen said.

Similarly he said the 2014 mine fire would have never happened if the regulator had insisted on mine rehabilitation.

“Had we not raised the question of rehabilitation as a result of the Morwell mine fire, people would have been talking about pollution and smoke and how bad the Victorian Health Department let us down,” he said.

Later he called on the State Government to fast track the rehabilitation of Latrobe Valley’s disused sections of coal mines to create excavation jobs for the region.

He said the union was more than just fighting for power station jobs, but also for the community.

In order to look after his members he said he had to support the community in which they lived and the place where their kids went to school.

On the heels of power station closures in Anglesea, Port Augusta as well as the Energy Brix site in Morwell, Mr van der Meulen retires as the Latrobe Valley power industry faces perhaps its greatest challenge of all.

As rumours continue to circulate about a phase down at Hazelwood and Yallourn power stations, he acknowledges the region’s economy is still heavily dependent on the jobs and incomes generated by the power stations and mine workers.

“Losing just one of those 1500 jobs to us is important and damages the community and we think we’re obligated to struggle for those jobs for future generations,” Mr van der Meulen said. “It’s a community question, I think.”

Trevor Williams has been elected to replace Mr van der Meulen. Read his story in Monday’s Express.