Around 1600 workers took industrial action at Woodside’s Pluto Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in January over changes to their accommodation. Woodside wanted the workers to change rooms at the end of each rostered work cycle instead of getting their own permanent accommodation for the duration of the project.
Such a change would have meant that personal items would have had to be taken to and from work constantly as there would be nowhere to store belongings on site. The loss of permanent accommodation would have also destroyed the sense of community that workers enjoy. This is very important as the workers spend up to 10 months of the year away from home.
When Woodside failed to address these concerns the workers initiated strike action. After an initial two day strike and further negotiations, workers went out for another eight days defying federal court orders demanding that they return to work. The consequences of this brave stance were that the workers faced fines of up to $22,000 or jail. Their only ‘crime’ was defending hard won working conditions.
This highlights the undemocratic IR laws that are in place under the Federal Labor Government. Rudd’s ‘Fair Work’ laws mean that it is still illegal for workers to go on strike, except during ‘bargaining periods’, and even then action is heavily restricted. Just like under Howard’s IR laws, if workers take ‘unprotected’ industrial action they can face massive fines or jail. The current system means that bosses are free to attack the conditions of workers but workers cannot defend themselves.
As the effects of the economic crisis become more apparent in Australia, workers will face increasing attacks on their living standards. Increases in the cost of living such as electricity and food are already being seen and are set to continue. This is going hand in hand with bosses’ propaganda calling for wage restraint and demonising any defensive action, as has happened with the workers on the Pluto LNG project. The reality is that the much famed high wages in the resources sector have been largely based on long hours and lots of overtime.
Maritime workers at Total Marine Services recently showed that improvements in conditions can be won when workers take on a fighting strategy. In this case it was simply the threat of industrial action that secured substantial improvements in conditions. This comes amid a rising (albeit slowly) tide of industrial action in Western Australia.
Telstra workers in the north-west of WA are set to take industrial action over pay as have construction workers in Perth and workers employed at Alcoa. The tendency for workers to take industrial action will continue as more people realise that they are facing attacks on their living standards while the bosses continue to make massive profits.
The challenge for the trade union movement is to unite around a campaign for an end to all of Labor’s anti-worker laws and especially for the right to strike. The right to strike is the main weapon workers’ have to defend themselves from attacks from the bosses. It is not workers who have created the crisis of capitalism and it is not workers who should have to pay for it.
By David Suter