05 May, 2017
Samantha Hutchinson & Greg Brown
Courtesy of the Australian
Serious threats to power supply throughout Victoria including the possible shutdown of the Alcoa aluminium smelter have forced the Andrews government into a dramatic intervention, after AGL flagged a lockout of workers at its Loy Yang plant.
With the threat of statewide blackouts looming, the Andrews government has lodged an application with Fair Work Australia seeking to prevent strikes by the Electrical Trades Union.
The move came after AGL said it had no choice but to shut down the facility, which generates more than 40 per cent of the state’s power, from May 15. The energy giant cited safety concerns if strikes planned by the ETU and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union went ahead.
AGL Loy Yang general manager Steve Rieniets said: “The proposed industrial action would compromise the safe operations of the plant and would ultimately put Victoria’s power generation at risk. We need to lock out the entire site simultaneously with the industrial action; this will allow us to shut down the station in a systematic way to protect equipment from being damaged.”
Faced with the threat of a major power outage that could cripple the state, Victorian Industrial Relations Minister Natalie Hutchins said the government had no option but to ask the FWC to terminate the industrial action.
“The protracted negotiations between AGL and its workforce commenced in 2015 and must be resolved,” Ms Hutchins said.
This is the second time since December that the government has been forced to intervene to stop a shutdown at Loy Yang, where management and union members have been at loggerheads for more than two years over a new enterprise agreement.
Unions have met resistance on their demands of no forced redundancies, no contract workers and minimum headcounts for each task. AGL has promised to preserve entitlements on salaries, leave and superannuation, in addition to salary increases of 20 per cent over four years.
Facing an impasse, AGL in January applied to have the current agreement terminated, which prompted the ETU to respond yesterday with notice of work stoppages and industrial action from May 15.
The ETU said the industrial action was designed to force the government’s hand into intervening, and came as more large employers tore up enterprise agreements and threatened to put workers onto award conditions, in a bid to start negotiations from scratch.
“We anticipated (AGL’s) response and it was a desired one,” said ETU spokesman Rory McCourt. “We want the state government to get involved so this could be handled and arbitrated by the Fair Work Commission.”
ETU Gippsland organiser Peter Mooney said the company had taken advantage of the political climate, given it was untenable for the Andrews government to allow the power plant to close. “You’ve got one (small) union who has taken action and then in retaliation AGL is locking out its entire workforce,” he said.
CFMEU Victorian energy secretary Geoff Dyke said a threat to put workers back onto the award wage would deliver a 65 per cent hit to most workers’ salaries and superannuation packages, which operate as a defined benefits scheme. He said the energy giant was taking the “Qantas” route, by quashing attempts at bargaining with an extreme response that threw the state into chaos and forced the government’s hand.
“This is a Qantas-type strategy that forces intervention … it doesn’t matter what action we take; they just respond by shutting down the entire site,” Mr Dyke said. “The current ETU action involves 10 members … why lock out 570 workers?”
Opposition energy spokesman David Southwick described the state’s energy supply as being on a “knife edge” following the government’s closure of the Hazlewood power station. “Victoria needs certainty, and to have Hazlewood close within five months of an announcement has thrown the market in chaos affecting affordability and now energy security,” Mr Southwick said.