While millions of Australian workers slumber in front of their TVs watching their fictional heroes and villains duke it out in Game of Thrones, in the real world sixty real human beings are taking on ‘the many-faced god’ known as ExxonMobil.
This dispute actually involves up to 200 casual maintenance workers who are employed by another multinational corporation called UGL. UGL are a subsidiary of another corporation called CIMIC. UGL is a contractor employed by ESSO, but ESSO is really ExxonMobil. So many faces.
When two corporations love each other very much they produce shelf companies. Thus, MTCT was born, yes, another bunch of letters. But what does all this nonsense mean? ESSO and UGL management created MTCT as a weapon. MTCT was set up to use the current industrial relations laws, fashioned by the Australian Labor Party back in 2009, to draft an Enterprise Agreement (EA). This EA was signed off by a handful of workers in Western Australia and is now a legal document.
Prior to this the UGL workers through their unions the AWU, ETU and AMWU had been trying to negotiate a new EA since April 2015. Two years later in June, having just begun a shutdown schedule on the offshore rigs, the UGL workers were approached to sign onto the new EA.
These workers were spread across various sites. Around 40 were split between two rigs, Marlin B and Tuna. Another group was poised to work at Kingfish B. Another 50 were split between Longford and Long Island Point plants. The remaining 100 or so casual workers are at home waiting on a phone call. They knew an attack was coming but the timing was planned to make it as difficult as possible for these workers to resist. Emulating the new tactics used by corporate bosses around the country a gun was put to their head. It was either sign the new agreement or hit the road.
The new agreement is an effective 30% to 40% wage cut depending on the trade, (dual trade electrician/instro’s will suffer the greatest cut). It means an end to the precious one week on, one week off, family friendly roster. An unregulated roster is to be introduced which means weeks and weeks out on these rusting hulks working 12-hour days. Add to this cuts to annual leave, allowances, stand down clauses for inclement weather with no pay, and more.
Separated from each other these UGL workers used their networks to make the momentous decision to forego work, put their futures on the line and take on the biggest gas and oil corporation in the world. Unless you have done this, it’s hard to explain just how hard it is. Especially today with so few industrial disputes due to the unprecedented and draconian anti-union laws. Laws put in place by both the major parties with little to no opposition by the overwhelmingly conservative union leaderships.
Many other work groups on the rigs had already been put in the same position and caved. Two years ago, the staff that do the cleaning and cooking (called campys) were told to resign their positions and in three months they would be rehired on the new EA. This was so the company could avoid the ‘transmission of business’ clauses in the Fair Work Act that requires the retention of past wages and conditions for the same work.
Not a single one of these workers was rehired. The specialised workers who work under water, as well as painters and concreter’s have all signed similar draconian agreements. Scariest of all, the workers who conduct the testing of the pipes and equipment on these ageing behemoths have also succumbed.
Last year ExxonMobil made $8.5 billion through overseas sales of oil and gas and did not pay a cent in tax. This is just one side of the equation. Due to deals done in Canberra by both major parties we now have gas prices tied to the world market and domestic prices controlled by the most rapacious corporations on the planet.
By selling the majority of the gas offshore, the cabal of gas corporations from ExxonMobil to Shell have deliberately raised gas bills by roughly 20% in less than two years. Australia produces more gas than Qatar. Whereas they receive $26.7 billion dollars in revenue a year, Australia barely receives $800 million.
Those who do pay tax are the workers, from supervisors, to riggers, to cleaners. It is these workers who have built and now run these oil and gas platforms and the onshore plants. Thousands of other workers in connected industries from electricity supply, to roads and food production enable these petrochemical beasts to exist. Yet all the wealth is sucked into the hands of a tiny minority of insanely rich capitalists who have the majority convinced we cannot run the world without them.
On the face of it this looks like a hopelessly one-sided battle, but the lens of history tells a very different story. ExxonMobil and UGL have taken on an extremely powerful workforce. If they were able to flex their full muscles in conjunction with the permanent ESSO workforce they could have already won this dispute.
Their strength comes not only from their unique skill set but because the UGL workers have worked side by side in cramped conditions year in year out. Once the blue was on they immediately shifted into high gear setting up a protest camp outside the Longford plant. Longford is just outside of Sale in Victoria and many people still remember the gas explosion that killed Peter Wilson and John Lowrey back in 1998.
In response ExxonMobil and Andre Kostelnik (a head kicker brought over from the States) have decided to treat these workers as if they were a military threat. They have sealed off all the car parking to various facilities with temporary fencing and placed security guards everywhere. They have stationed a white SUV just up the road from the protest camp that films and photographs all comings and goings. This has done nothing to dissuade the UGL workers who have worked hard to expand their camp and their political reach.
ESSO management have tried to intimidate the permanent workers employed at the Longford plant, threatening them with disciplinary action and possible dismissal if they fraternise with the protest camp. This has also had little to no effect, as the hatred for ESSO runs deep.
Each morning before work begins the ESSO workers stop their cars at the protest line. They take information leaflets and drop money into the collection buckets. ExxonMobil has complained bitterly to the Council and the local police. The police have ruled that each car can only be stopped for 20 seconds, so the fraternisation and expressions of solidarity continue every morning and again in the evening.
The dispute has already passed 50 days. Without a picket line, the UGL protest has dissuaded all but a handful of scabs. The UGL workers have another mini protest camp opposite the heliport where Leonardo AW139 helicopters ferry workers to and from the rigs. In another example of Australia’s decline towards corporate domination you can no longer even yell “scab” at these low-lifes. So instead the UGL workers cheer these corporate drones as they fly off to do their masters’ bidding.
The UGL dispute is another chapter in the ‘war on workers’, a war that the union movement is for the most part losing. It is the opinion of increasing numbers that we need unions and union leaders who are prepared to use the weapons of the past – the picket, the solidarity strike, the general strike and mass rallies.
These are the weapons that can win, the weapons that can turn the sinking ship that is the union movement around. Trade unions are not their million-dollar offices or fleets of cars, let alone their lawyers. Trade unions are the members themselves. More and more people are also beginning to see that we desperately need a new workers party as both the major capitalist parties in Australia are in the pockets of the corporations.
As long as we let the likes of ExxonMobil rule our lives, these types of conflicts will never end. The overarching historical mission of the union movement used to be clear but has been drowned out by decades of corporate domination over every aspect of our lives. This mission was expressed as the socialisation of industry, or socialism – a system where the key levers of our economy are in the hands of the people. A system run by workers for workers, for we are the ones who produce the wealth. Only on this basis will we pass from the age of war and greed and build a society truly fit for human beings.
Every win for working people is a step in this direction. Right now, the UGL workers need your support. Please consider visiting their protest camp on Garrets Road in Longford, or donating to their fighting fund. Further details are on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/concernedmaintenanceworker/
By SA Millar