US giant Bechtel has used classic divide and rule tactics to narrowly defeat proposals to change the fly-in fly-out (FIFO) roster on Queensland’s Curtis Island LNG sites.
The three sites, near Gladstone, employ some thousands of workers on a four-weeks-on, on- week- off (4-1) roster.
It is the only place in Queensland with such an arrangement. Most FIFO sites around the country are on 3-1 rosters, and some even shorter.
When the company’s Enterprise Agreement expired, unions on site sought to bring the project back to a 3-1 roster, and picket lines were put on ferry terminals by CFMEU members.
It soon became apparent though that the workforce was far from united and that the Gladstone community was similarly divided.
The community has long accused the company of refusing to employ local tradies and labourers in preference to interstate and overseas workers.
The company’s personnel practices were attacked, with locals saying that employment depended on who you knew at Bechtel and that active unionists were discriminated against in favour of FIFO workers with no ties to the CFMEU, AWU, CEPU and AMWU.
After an initial rise in real estate prices and retail trade in Gladstone, the employment of a mainly FIFO workforce had brought about the opposite effect.
The demand for a 3-1 roster had come from workers who wanted a more family-friendly arrangement.
Opposing them were workers who were more interested in the big money that can be earned on the island and who had less of an issue with lifestyle issues.
Their attitude towards those seeking to change the roster was “You guys need to understand what you signed on for and just accept it”, without acknowledging that the expiry of an EB makes its renegotiation a perfectly legitimate exercise.
Bechtel Chief Executive, billionaire Riley Bechtel, flew into Galdstone last October in his private jet to set the parameters for the forthcoming EB negotiations.
It is clear that from the point of view of generating surplus value from the labour power of Bechtel employees that the intensity of the labour process had to be maintained. That meant maintaining twelve-hour shifts over four weeks rather than bringing the one week release forward by a week.
The first vote of a new agreement was held in May, with 32% of workers voting yes. The second vote, in early June, had 46% support.
The trend was running in favour of Bechtel, although it could not secure majority agreement at this stage.
The unions had to take a stronger stand, so industrial action was taken and a picket put on the ferries that link the island with the mainland.
Although this was maintained for a week, threats of individual fines of $10,000, sequestration of property and imprisonment for contempt of court accompanied a “Fair” Work Commission ruling that made industrial action unprotected. Workers subsequently stopped their action.
Having lost the first two votes, Bechtel offered a range of inducements to encourage workers to support the third agreement, including back pay, a $35 ferry allowance, a 15% pay rise, daily productivity pay, daily travel allowance of $45 increasing to $50 in November, and a $10 a day attendance allowance rising to $30 in November. They also threw in a concession that they would introduce a 3-1 roster at the end of the new agreement, which will be several years away.
The result was that the final vote, of over 7000 workers, was 54.3% in favour of the company’s offer.
Bechtel had won on the immediate issue of deferring change to its unfair roster by promoting division within the workforce and using material incentives to defeat aspirations for a more family-friendly rostering arrangement.
Although defeated on this issue, those who stood tall in the struggle for the change can be proud that they displayed the finest qualities of our Australian working class.
They are the solid core who understand the history of their class and see issues from a class standpoint.
As a community supporter who joined the picket said on a Facebook site: “…what you're fighting for resonates with all of us. My jeans and shoes are full of the dust from union corner, my face is burnt, my laptop is grubby and my iphone looks like it's been run over... But I'm so glad to have had the honour of standing by your sides this week.”
She was right. There was no shame in this loss, only honour that they had dared to struggle.