Workers at Esso in Gippsland, Victoria have been on the picket line for over 320 days.

“This is a prime example of how broken current laws are, which allowed our company to legally make 230 workers redundant on 15 June 2017, and the very next day offered our jobs back to us but with a 30-40 per cent pay cut”, Troy Carter told Melbourne’s mass union delegates meeting last month.

Esso sub-contracts maintenance work at its Bass Strait oil rigs to another company, UGL. UGL sacked them and transferred the contract to a new subsidiary. Using the same tactics as at Carlton & United Breweries in 2016, it then tried to impose an Enterprise Agreement that was approved to cover five casual workers in Western Australia, none of them from Esso.

Workers also faced savage cuts to annual leave and allowances. The company also wanted to scrap one week one, one week off roster arrangements and move to a 14 days on, 14 days off roster.

Unions have raised money for a fighting fund to support the workers, and delegates from Esso have been touring workplaces to tell other workers about their struggle.

But almost a year out of work has taken an immense toll. “Each and every one of them can tell you how it’s affected them and their families”, Troy explained.

Current industrial laws ban workers from holding effective pickets outside their workplace against scabbing. The company even gained Federal Court orders forcing Esso workers to take down the inflatable “Scabby the rat”, on the grounds that it was intimidating scabs from going into work.

Two union delegates at Esso were summarily sacked in October last year for abusing scab maintenance workers.

Another 600 other workers are directly employed by Esso at the Longford gas plant and on its oil and gas rigs. Solidarity strike action could shut down their operations and force the company to re-hire the 230 sacked workers. But such action is illegal under the Fair Work Act.

Unions need to be prepared to break the rules if we’re going to defend our rights.

By James Supple

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