Magazine of the Socialist Party, Australian section of the CWI

Desal plant: Thiess sack 160 sparkies

The Desalination Plant project in Victoria has become the front line of the battle ground between big business and some of Australia’s most militant unions. In the latest battle construction giant Thiess Degremont has announced that they will sack 160 electricians – all members of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU).

On top of the sackings Thiess has said it will also implement changes to working conditions. They plan to move the electricians from the current four-day-on four-day-off roster back to the traditional 56 hour week.

Thiess claim that this is all to “increase productivity” but clearly they are trying to provoke a dispute with the union. The Desalination Plant project is already months behind schedule. This is mostly due to management incompetence, design problems and bad weather.

The company is trying to build up a case as to why they will not be able to meet the deadline. They want someone to blame when the project ends up in court. Their contract states that they face fines of $1.8 million for every day beyond the deadline of June 30, 2012.

Correctly the ETU has not taken the bait. The union is exhausting all legal options while fighting the sackings on the job. While it may be necessary at some stage, a strike would be deemed illegal and incur millions of dollars in fines. It is preferable at this stage to implement go slows and bans on overtime.

Workers on site report that many parts of the project are a health and safety nightmare. Now is the time to be going over every single health and safety issue with a fine tooth comb. Workers should be exercising their rights: If it is unsafe, stop work.

At the same time it is clear that Thiess’ strategy is to pick the unions off one by one. Recently the CFMEU was attacked via the sacking of a delegate, now it is the ETU. The metal trades and plumbers will be next in line.

Unfortunately the close collaboration between the construction unions has been set back in recent years. Starting with this job we need to see the return of joint delegates and OH&S committees. We can not allow Thiess or any other employer to divide and conquer the unions in order to undermine hard won gains.

The big construction bosses see this site as a testing ground. The project will not give them the financial returns they had hoped for so they are keen to use it to try and break the strength of the unions. They plan to use every legal option at their disposal including Labor’s Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

A strong message needs to be sent to Thiess and every construction company in Australia. If these workers are sacked we need to see solidarity action on every job where Thiess is present. The fight on the Desalination Plant also needs to be linked to the fight against the tools the bosses are using – Labor’s anti-union laws.

This battle should not be confined to the Desalination Plant alone. This is not just an attack on 160 sparkies, it’s an attack on all workers.

By Simon Millar