Longford dispute: Time to get UGLy

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The UGL dispute in Longford, Victoria has now well and truly overtaken the CUB dispute of 2016. It has passed the 200-day mark becoming the longest ongoing union battle in recent memory. But what pushes a group of oil and gas maintenance workers to take such a heroic stand?

ESSO, who are really Exxon Mobile, are using the maintenance contractor UGL to carry out a frontal assault on these workers’ wages and conditions. UGL used a handful of Western Australian workers to sign a grubby EA (Enterprise Agreement) and then tried to force it on the rest of the workforce.

This non-union EA ended the one week off, one week on roster and replaced it with no roster. You stay on the rigs for as long as required. They followed this up with wage cuts ranging from 30% to 40%. The agreement also changed stand down provisions, meaning that you don’t get paid when the weather is inclement or operational reasons make it impossible to work. The list goes on and on.

Most of the core group have spent over ten years working on the rigs. They are highly skilled. Countless times they have performed dangerous tasks over and above what was required, to keep these ageing rigs operating safely. Most have also suffered injuries especially to their hands. The ongoing pain and scars are a constant reminder of the sacrifices made.

To then be treated with complete contempt, to be ruthlessly devalued by a corporation making obscene profits while paying no tax, is an absolute insult. These workers have stood on their honour and paid this insult back with interest. The 200 plus scabs who have trodden over these men’s heroic stand will never be forgiven or forgotten.

ESSO and UGL’s ruthless contempt is being dished out to all levels of the workforce from supervisors down. Workers run these rigs, run the onshore plants and ensure our gas and oil supplies, but upper management, driven by those who don’t have to work, have seen an opportunity to further increase their obscene wealth.

ESSO are so cashed up they are confident they can weather the storm of this dispute, and thus far they have. Their greed is insatiable, because it is driven by the nature of the system. At its heart capitalism is the exploitation of the vast majority, workers, by a tiny minority, the capitalists. It tries to reduce all our relationships to the measure of money.

Over the last 200 days the amount of work these workers have put in to try and win this dispute while being handcuffed by the union leaders, who are not prepared to take serious industrial action, has been magnificent. From the day to day stuff of patiently explaining the dispute to all who drop by the protest line, to confronting the scabs week after week, to rallies, trips to Canberra to talk to politicians and countless visits to worksites as far afield as Darwin.

Not a single day or night has passed without these workers holding the line. They have stood strong through the heat and through the cold. They knocked back a truce over Christmas to the dismay of the ESSO employed surveillance and security crews. $30 million was put aside by ESSO to fund this attack. They have well and truly blown this budget, having gravely underestimated these workers’ resolve.

This dispute has done more to expose the fact that Exxon Mobile pays no income tax than all the well paid supposed workers’ representatives in the Labor Party. With the help of the Tax Justice Network, they have exposed the special relationship that Exxon Mobile has with our political class and the tax department. They have also managed to get the Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance extended by six months.

While this is a great achievement, Australian workers already know the big corporations pay little to no tax. It has been exposed many times. Why do we need highly paid Senators sitting around discussing what we already know? What needs to happen is the implementation of air tight legislation that would compel these corporations to pay the billions of dollars in lost tax. We would also need a major party not beholden to big business, and prepared to fight to get it passed. At present we have neither, just a lot of expensive hot air.

Until the Labor Party is either miraculously transformed, or our unions move to establish a new party run by workers for workers, then nothing significant is going to change. Until workers see a democratic grass roots workers party based on organised labour, whose central platform is to take our key economic assets into public ownership and use this enormous wealth to govern for the majority, we will continue to drown in lies, greed and bullshit.

Unfortunately, there is little to no chance the Labor Party will change the industrial or tax laws in any meaningful way. But they will use the rhetoric to garner workers’ votes. Despite viscous anti-worker attacks right across the country, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) hasn’t even called one mass rally. No wonder the bosses feel smug that union power is dying.

This UGL dispute however is arriving at a critical juncture. It was clear from the beginning that what has been dished out to the workers is merely the prelude to ESSO attacking their own workforce. ESSO have been trying to force their offshore workforce to sign a rotten EA for over two years.

The ESSO workforce last year voted to walk off the job indefinitely unless the company came to the table with an acceptable EA. This protected action was overruled by Fair Work and the unions, as is usual these days, copped it. Fair Work cancelled the protected action and ESSO is now applying for the cancellation of the agreement which would throw these workers back onto the Award. It’s the same rotten story that played out at Loy Yang and saw those workers defeated.

The ESSO offshore operators are now being forced to train up their own replacements. Seven ESSO workers, all union militants, have been stood down for a range of minor incidents, four have now been sacked. UGL now have a full complement of 200 plus scabs, including a small number of the original workforce.

They are incompetent and have already come close to blowing a rig sky high by cutting into the wrong pipe. All the conditions and more are in place for a repeat of the 1998 Longford gas plant explosion. ESSO are going for the jugular, sensing the weakness of the union leaders’ strategy and the fear among the workforce.

The union leaders have some tough choices ahead. They can either do what needs to be done and use the battle over the offshore EA to widen the industrial campaign uniting both the UGL and ESSO workers, or they can preside over further defeats.

To win you would need to be prepared to shut down the rigs if necessary and to not stop until the dispute is won, all threats of fines are withdrawn, and all workers involved rehired. This would require great courage, hard work and political smarts. These are the qualities that established the union movement and the qualities that will be needed to save it.

A win against Exxon could act as the spark that turns the union movement around. It would be a vital wake up call to our current masters, showing that workers united can defeat one of the most powerful corporations in the world. It would put the union movement back on the front foot.

The Victorian Trades Hall rightly mobilized hundreds of people to campaign for equal marriage rights, but unfortunately no such effort is being made for the UGL workers. Not one union site in Melbourne has ongoing levies to financially support this dispute. The lackluster support provided to this dispute by the wider union movement is a disgrace and needs to be redressed immediately.

This mighty blue needs to become a cause célèbre like the MUA dispute of 1998. All the key issues facing workers across this country are bound up in it; the destruction of wages and conditions, by corporations owned and controlled by people richer than we can ever imagine; the use of the rotten industrial relations laws given to us by the Labor Party, after workers fought so hard to get rid of WorkChoices; the private ownership of our essential energy resources, which are used to gouge workers and farmers with constantly rising utility bills; cozy deals done between these corporations and politicians of all stripes that have enabled this enormous wealth to flow offshore and into the tax havens of the super-rich; and corporations that, despite this obscene wealth, are allowed to pay no tax, all while pumping out emissions, poisoning our water supply and polluting the air and sea.

When is a line going be drawn in the sand? When are correct political conclusions going to be drawn? We need to return to old school industrial action. But in order to carry it out effectively we need rank and file control of our unions. We also need a political party that actually represents workers.

The rank and file workers who have kept this dispute going against all odds are true heroes and the best of the working class. They have already earned their place in the history books. There is a great victory waiting to be seized here and the next few months will be crucial. If the union leaders don’t step up to the plate, they may one day find that the unions they currently run have millions of dollars in their coffers but no members.

By SA Millar