For over 40 days maintenance workers have been camped outside the gates of ExxonMobil’s gas plant in Longford, Victoria. While being typical of the recent attacks on Australia’s working class, their fight is also a focal point of the current stage of the Australian peoples’ struggle for independence.
Longford, situated just south of Sale in Gippsland, is the onshore receiving point for oil and gas that is extracted offshore in the Bass Strait. The plants there are owned by Esso, subsidiary of the world’s sixth largest company by revenue and capitalisation, U.S. multinational ExxonMobil, as part of a joint venture with BHP. The plants supply nearly 80% of Victoria’s gas as well as gas to both Tasmania and New South Wales, and have produced over 50% of all of Australia’s crude oil and liquids. It is a crucial site for the supply of gas to households and businesses in southern and eastern Australia.
Until recently, maintenance work of both the onshore and offshore facilities was done by workers employed by Australian maintenance contracting giant UGL. In December 2016, UGL was purchased by CIMIC Group (formerly Leighton Holdings, which is owned by German construction company Hochtief, which in turn is majority owned by Spanish construction and engineering firm ACS Group).
CUB all over again?
ExxonMobil recently awarded a 5-year extension to UGL on its maintenance contract. However, during wage negotiations with its 200 maintenance workers for the new agreement, UGL declared that the contract would be fulfilled by a subsidiary “shelf” company set up by UGL called MTCT Services. With striking similarity to the recent CUB dispute, the workers were sacked and told they could apply for their jobs back with MTCT on an agreement that cuts their wages by 30%. The agreement, that was voted up by just 5 workers (workers with absolutely no connection to the operations in the Bass Strait) in Western Australia last November, also makes every position casual and destroys the current one-week-on/one-week-off offshore roster arrangements, replacing it with any roster that management sees fit. The majority of the 200 workers refused to sign on to the new agreement and have set up an indefinite protest camp outside the gates of the gas plant.
The rules are broken – but will Labor fix them?
Amazingly, all this is completely legal under the Fair Work Act. And that should worry every working person in Australia. When highly unionised workers in such an industrially vital sector can have their wages and conditions obliterated in such an underhanded and callous manner, then no worker in this country can consider themselves safe.
The ACTU and the unions are right when they say the industrial relations laws in this country are completely broken. And the current destruction of workers’ rights and conditions while corporations continue to make giant profits is proof of that. This has spurred new ACTU secretary Sally McManus into launching a new campaign to “Change the Rules” that seeks to re-balance the scales of power more in favour of the working class. Sounds great.
But here’s the catch. In the current conditions, the only way for the laws to be rewritten is if the ALP was to win government at the next election and introduce new legislation to change the laws. The irony of course is that it was the very same ALP that introduced the current laws under the Fair Work Act in the first place!
The importance of an independent working class agenda is as clear as ever
While the ALP has started to echo the unions’ concerns, the unions must heed the lessons of the past and fully understand that the ALP-in-opposition is a very different beast to the ALP-in-government. If the ALP is to really make the sweeping legislative changes needed to re-balance the scales of power in industrial relations then it must be pressured by a mass grassroots working class movement that is independent of the parliamentary concerns of any political party.
Unfortunately, rather than see clear signs of the unions adopting such an independent agenda, the unions seem to be doubling down on their reliance of the ALP. Whether it’s the campaign to defend penalty rates, or the construction unions’ fight against the new building code and the ABCC, the only strategy the union movement is presenting is to batten down the hatches and survive until the next election when hopefully the ALP will fix its problems for it.
Part of the reason for this is a lack of clear class consciousness and politics on the part of the union leadership, while another significant reason is the difficulty in organising wide sweeping industrial campaigns under the current legislation that leaves the unions hog-tied and disarmed. But whatever the excuses may be, the result of failing to organise around an independent working class agenda in the coming period is clear - the lack of ability to significantly pressure the ALP into real and substantial change to industrial relations legislation that will leave them free to simply tinker at the edges once more.
ExxonMobil/Esso dispute – a focal point of the current stage of Australia’s revolutionary struggle
In analysing the concrete conditions of society in this country, the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) puts forward the position that the current stage of Australia’s revolutionary struggle is the struggle for independence from the foreign imperialist (predominately U.S.) interests that dominate this country economically, politically and militarily.
Although the workers directly involved in the dispute with Esso may or may not be conscious of the fact, their fight is more than just a dispute over wages and conditions. It is a dispute that raises numerous political questions that get to the heart of the revolutionary struggle in this country.
It raises the question of who really owns this country and its resources. Giant foreign multinationals like ExxonMobil who made $8.5 billion last year, no small part of which came from the export of Australia’s gas and oil, and yet paid zero tax here.
It raises the question of how Australia’s wealth and resources should be used. Recent reports suggest Australia is set to rival Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of LNG, yet, needlessly, our already high domestic gas prices are continuing to escalate putting more and more pressure on the living conditions of Australia’s working people.
It raises the question of the kind of society we live in and how it works. Not just corporations driven by greed, but a capitalist society that due to its own internal laws is dependent on continued economic growth and the production of profit on the backs of the labour-power of the working class.
In total, it raises questions about the future of Australian society and the way forward to a better society for the benefit of the majority of Australia’s people.
It is the task of revolutionary minded people to push forward the struggle against the multinationals that dominate our economy and raise the level of consciousness in the peoples’ struggles. Raising the demand for the nationalisation of multinational resource companies that pay no tax here, like ExxonMobil and Chevron, and calling for Australia’s resources to be used to the benefit of the Australian people are immediate demands that should be raised in our fight for independence and towards socialism.