The eight-day strike over motelling at Woodside in Western Australia has ended in a draw. But the industrial battle isn’t over by a long shot—not for Woodside, and not for the workers and unions hit by massive fines by Fair Work Australia.
The wildcat strike by Woodside workers was a shot in the arm for industrial militancy. They defied court orders and the urging of union officials to end the strike for eight days. A narrow vote accepted a deal which had guaranteed permanent accommodation for existing workers but has allowed Woodside to provide motelling accommodation for new fly-in fly-out workers.
The motelling issue however could blow up again as workers move between accommodation camps as new projects start up. The deal could mean that workers will lose their right to permanent accommodation when they move. At Gorgon, for example, the unions have signed off on a greenfields agreement which accepts motelling.
The issue of travel money is also looming as another battle. Under the existing agreement travel money is paid only for travel time over 20 minutes.
Mostly it is taking at least 40 minutes to get to work using company buses from the camps, but the company is saying because it should only take 20, it won’t pay.
The wildcat strike has rattled the Woodside bosses who are calling for stronger penalties to enforce court orders to return to work.
The government and other bosses are also worried that any wages break out and the militancy could spread to other sections of the workforce.
Another flash point could come with the court action launched by Woodside and 13 other contractors against the 1668 striking workers who could face fines of up to $22,000 for refusing to return to work.
Woodside also says it will sue the workers for millions in damages for lost production due to the strike.
Meanwhile, the CFMEU and AMWU have agreed to pay records fines of $1.325 million in penalties for picketing John Holland during the West Gate Bridge dispute in Melbourne in April last year.
The Australian Building and Construction Commission took the unions to court for 52 breaches of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act.
Workplace relations Minister, Julia Gillard, says the settlement, “confirms the continuing need for a strong cop on the beat in the building and construction industry. It also confirms that anyone who breaks the law will feel its full force.”
CFMEU member Ark Tribe also faces trial in Adelaide on June 15 for failing to attend a compulsory interrogation by the ABCC in 2008, and the possibility of six months jail if he is convicted.
Unions have promised an industrial campaign if Ark is sent to jail. But the need for a concerted industrial campaign not just for Ark, but to knock out Rudd’s WorkChoices-lite industrial laws grows more urgent every day.
The unions can’t just keep copping fines. In the 1960s the penal powers of the Arbitration Court were beaten by a organised union campaign of defiance. The Woodside strike shows that the power of strike action to defend workers’ rights is still there to be mobilised.
What’s needed is the political will to use it.
By Ian Rintoul