The state government will go to Fair Work to prevent workers at Victoria’s biggest energy plant going on strike and plunging the state into an energy crisis.
“The protracted negotiations between AGL and its workforce commenced in 2015 and must be resolved,” Industrial Relations Minister Natalie Hutchins said.
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“The Government will ask the Fair Work Commission to terminate this protected industrial action before any closure can occur.”
For the second time since Christmas, energy producer and retailer AGL has threatened to lock out the entire workforce and shut down its Loy Yang A power plant in the Latrobe Valley over proposed union action.
The Loy Yang coal-fired power plant and mine, which together provide more than half of Victoria’s energy fuel, would be shut down from Monday, May 15.
It’s a move that has been likened to the “Qantas option”, which refers to the airline’s two-day lockout in 2011 when it grounded its entire fleet after long-running industrial action.
AGL Loy Yang general manager Steve Rieniets said the plant received notice on Wednesday from the Electrical Trades Union of “consecutive stoppages” from 12am on May 15.
“The proposed industrial action would compromise the safe operations of the plant and would ultimately put Victoria’s power generation at risk,” Mr Rieniets said.
AGL Energy says it will close its Loy Yang A power station and mine from May 15. Photo: Paul Jones
“We have no other option to resolve the bargaining dispute other than implementing this lockout. We need to lock out the entire site simultaneously with the industrial action, this will allow us to shut down the station in a systematic way to protect equipment from being damaged.”
It’s another dramatic escalation in the 18 month-long battle over pay and conditions at Loy Yang.
AGL threatened to lock out workers and shut down the plant in response to a proposed 24-hour strike over Christmas last year.
The crisis was narrowly averted when the Andrews government staged an emergency intervention by making an application to the Fair Work Commission to terminate both the actions of the workers and the company.
Analysts from Citi had already tipped that the government would step in again.
“The importance of Loy Yang has only increased post Hazelwood closure,” Citi said.
ETU branch organiser Peter Mooney said the company’s reaction to the proposed strike action “wasn’t unexpected” and workers would not back down “until we get an agreement”.
“You can imagine, this dispute has been going on for nearly two years now, and workers are extremely concerned about their future and their jobs and their conditions,” Mr Mooney said.
He said workers who would be involved in the strike action were in “critical” roles.
“We’ve got to go through with the action, and if the state government decides to step in, then that’s a decision for the government,” he said.
“This threatened industrial action and lockout, I personally think, will put a huge strain on the electricity available in the state of Victoria.”
Hundreds of workers at Loy Yang have twice knocked back large pay rise offers of 20 per cent over four years, due to concerns about the company’s plan to slash minimum staffing levels.
Mr Rieniets has previously said it was “hard to fathom” that, in tight economic times, the union had encouraged its members reject such a good offer.
But Mr Mooney said the dispute had “never been about money”.
“It’s about the minimum number of staffing, contracting and the protection of people’s entitlements,” he said.
Fairfax Media, AAP