How we kicked the building code out of the power industry (and the water industry, and the telecommunications industry...)

ETU - the Electrical Trades Union

Public campaigning and lobbying by CEPU South Australia members has resulted in the Building Code being kicked out of the power industry nationwide 

South Australia was ground zero in the fight to keep the ABCC out of the power industry. 

CEPU members at South Australia power networks had their future on the line when now-disgraced Commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss refused to exempt part of the business from the building code. 

With their EBA up for renewal, this meant that the door was open for the company to try to save money by bringing in cut-price labour hire at the expense of the loyal and experienced members who had worked at the company for years and decades, since a code-compliant EBA wouldn't be able to include a contractor parity clause. The ruling threatened 36 other clauses in the EBA, and would potentially put members back decades. 

We weren't going to accept this. CEPU South Australia members swung into action, launching a campaign called 1SAPN immediately. They aimed to spread the word within the company so that management couldn't break off a section of the workforce and get them to sign off on a dodgy code-compliant EBA that left working people exposed and undermined their job security. 

Meanwhile officials from the CEPU/ETU national office filed a court challenge against the decision, making sure the ABCC would have to show up and defend their terrible decision if they wanted to get it through.

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High stakes

The CEPU SA members at SAPN were going into a high-stakes battle. Not only were they fighting for their own ability to provide for their families and keep their jobs secure, they knew that every other power company in Australia was watching closely, waiting to see if they could use the Building Code to undermine work security and cut wages.

The ABCC decision showed that the so-called protections that had been negotiated for people working in essential services were next to useless. If the government could just classify us all as non-essential then power workers were going to be subject to the same things as people in the construction industry.

We went back to the person who had promised that essential services workers would be protected – South Australian senator Nick Xenophon.

We told the senator that the Building Code was a bad idea from beginning to end, and that he should never have voted for it. And we told him the safeguards the government had promised would protect people in the essential services industries were useless.

The battle on the ground

CEPU officials and delegates marshalled the troops within SAPN, holding depot meetings not just in Adelaide but all around the massive state. We spread the word and made sure that everyone understood the importance of what we were facing.

The union drew on its reserves to run a public campaign, hitting the media and telling people in South Australia that the people who go out in the rain to get the power back on were being told by politicians in Canberra that they weren’t essential.

CEPU South Australia president and SAPN delegate Jason Harrison was the face of the campaign.

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To make sure that SAPN management got the message, CEPU SA members crowdfunded a billboard in addition to the advertisement we ran in the Adelaide Advertiser. The billboard, directly across from SAPN headquarters, sent the clear message that CEPU SA members are essential services workers and won’t lay down our hard-won conditions without a fight.

The campaign culminated in a rally outside the ABCC headquarters in Adelaide. People working at South Australia Power Networks, including some who had not yet joined the CEPU, came from around the state to tell Canberra that they were not going to let go of the conditions that allowed them a decent way of life.

The effort pays off

Negotiations with Xenophon continued. He had been promised that essential services workers would not be subject to the building code, but found himself in a situation where these government assurances proved false when it came to the people responsible for getting the lights back on in his home state after storms and fires.  

Xenophon recognised that he had to act. He spoke to Employment Minister Michaelia Cash and convinced her to change the code to exempt SAPN and other essential services companies entirely.

The changes that we got meant that not just SAPN, but all essential services workers around the country were now exempt from the Building Code. The attacks on job security, the use of cut-price labour hire, the cancelling of RDOs, the abolition of apprentice ratios – they were all gone from the power, water and telecommunications industries.

Power companies, water authorities, telcos, gas companies and governments building sewage works could no longer use the rotten building code to intimidate and undermine working people. Almost immediately, negotiations for a code-compliant EBA at Telstra were stopped.

The future

For CEPU SA members at SAPN, there is still a long way to go. They’ve kicked the building code to curb for whole industries, but the company is still going to try to erode their conditions in the upcoming EBA negotiations.

The fight continues. 


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