It is a grave day when the Australian Labor Party weighs in to support a union dispute which threatens to disrupt the plant supplying half of Victoria’s gas.
The gas plant is under siege due to a business decision by ExxonMobil to change a maintenance contractor to UGL.
For weeks now, an active union protest has convened on the steps of the plant. There are reports of workers facing threats and intimidation for choosing to go to work and earn their living.
A giant inflatable rat known as “Scabby”, and a sign naming and shaming individual workers, are examples of such union tactics only just removed by Court order on Friday.
The merits of any industrial dispute are not relevant because a resort to lawlessness can never be justified. That said, this dispute is not about low paid and ill-treated workers.
To list just a few basic facts: the work won by UGL is a five-year maintenance contract, meaning five years of employment for local Gippsland workers; and the base rate of pay offered by UGL is high, offshore workers will earn $186,000 per year for 22 weeks’ work, for a base trade position, the same level as oil and gas workers at other operations right across Australia.
It’s true that the offshore roster is new. Indeed, it provides an extra 13 days of leave each year to these workers. The grim reality here is that we have a union who sees fit to resort to illegal activity when it does not get what it wants.
In no other part of society would we tolerate a protest of this nature. I rather imagine if there was a protest preventing or intimidating people going to see Geelong play Carlton at Etihad on Saturday, there would be community outrage.
There has been much discussion in the Gippsland area that, should the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten win Government, he would move to change the law to “correct legal loop holes”.
One such change is understood to be about mandating union representation in bargaining. The legal loop hole being the option to choose whether to be represented by a union in bargaining.
However the contractor’s workforce chose to be represented in this case, the irony is that the current bargaining representation laws were made by Mr Shorten in his former capacity as Workplace Relations Minister of the former Labor Government.
This enterprise agreement was independently checked against those laws, and approved by the Fair Work Commission.
Further, under Mr Shorten’s current bargaining laws, unions have substantial rights to influence bargaining outcomes if they represent even one of hundreds of workers.
There is already little scope to choose to bargain without union involvement and, where workers do so choose, you can be guaranteed those decisions are not made lightly. The intimidation on the current Gippsland protest being just one example.
How will it all end? It won’t unless the unions, and the broader Labor movement, stop playing these industrial games and start acting in the interests of the Australian community. Workers need these jobs and Australia needs the gas.