Workers at the NSW state-owned energy network operators went on strike in a series of stoppages over a stalled workplace agreement in March. They are also demanding job protections in the face of the state government’s privatisation plans.

Employees at Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy walked off the job in the final four hours of their scheduled shifts in three staggered groups across the state on 31 March. Over 11,000 workers took part, across the entire Endeavour Energy service area as well as Ausgrid depots on the Northern Beaches, Eastern Suburbs and Newcastle.

The following day, Ausgrid workers in Southern Sydney, the CBD, Central Coast and Singleton downed tools for the second half of their shifts. And on April 8, Ausgrid workers in the Inner West, Northern Sydney, Upper Hunter, Maitland and Cessnock walked off.

The inklings of an industrial campaign are a positive step in the context of the high profile electoral campaign against the sale of poles and wires. But the Electrical Trades Union, United Services Union and Professionals Australia appear resigned to the prospect of privatisation.

Protections and privatisation

The unions had previously applied for full day strikes without geographic staggering but the Industrial Relations Commission bought the companies’ scare campaign that this would be too disruptive and would cause safety breaches.

In response, the unions amended their stoppage plans and said the action was not expected to impact on supply of power to the public, with minimum staffing coverage provided during the stoppages, and key positions such as control room staff and emergency officers not taking part.

It has been more than three months since workplace agreements at both companies expired. ETU Secretary Steve Butler said workers were simply fighting for basic job protections that would prevent a future private owner from forcing out staff against their will.

“The key issues here are job protections and the prevention of forced redundancies, which are a major concern for workers given Mike Baird’s plan to sell a majority stake in both these companies to the private sector,” said Butler.

“Workers also face the looming decision of the Australian Energy Regulator, whose draft pricing determination—if imposed—would see 2400 jobs cut at Ausgrid and 700 at Endeavour Energy. All they are asking for is a written commitment that these companies won’t force thousands of workers out of a job once they are sold off to private operators.”

The unions have already made a range of concessions to try and resolve the dispute but the NSW Government—the current owner of the companies—is refusing to budge. It has rejected an offer to accept reduced pay rises in return for maintaining existing job security provisions.

Even if they agreed to keep the protections, they would only cover workers for five years following the sale of the operators, and the new management would be free to slash as many jobs as it wanted after that.

ETU members told Solidarity that the protections were not enough and that they would be meaningless for anyone not nearing retirement age. They argued that Unions NSW had not campaigned enough on the issue and called on the ETU and the USU to escalate the industrial campaign and oppose the privatisation outright.

The NSW state election, despite returning the Baird government to power, revealed enormous opposition to privatisation.

An Essential Media poll found that 72 per cent of respondents agreed with the view that “utilities like water and power suppliers are too important to be sold off”. Seventy per cent agreed with the view that, “prices always increase more when services are privatised”. Fifty three per cent disagreed with the view that “selling off public utilities to private companies will help the economy”.

Clearly there is both rank-and-file member backing and public support for a broader anti-privatisation campaign of strikes and demonstrations. The Baird government may face some issues getting privatisation through the Legislative Council.

This provides a window of time in which to build the campaign and prepare for industrial confrontation. The union could be encouraging rank-and-file members to build the argument for wide-scale industrial action.

Ditching the attitude of resignation to privatisation and short-term redundancy positions, and combining the fight for workplace agreements with a fight against privatisation, would push the fight forward. If privatisation goes ahead, workers’ conditions and union density is under real threat.

By Mark Butcher

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