Union staff short changed as Labor funds Transgrid and ignores workers fight for fair wages

Today in Parliament, Abigail moved a motion challenging the NSW Government's allocation of a grant to Transgrid to fund new labour costs, a decision undercutting and disregarding current union industrial action at the company.

Abigail said:

I move: 

1. That this House notes that:

  • since October 2023, over 400 Electrical Trades Union (ETU) members at Transgrid have been attempting to bargain for a fair pay deal,
  • for the last four months, Transgrid has been involved in an ongoing industrial dispute, with ETU members again voting to continue escalating industrial action,
  • the ETU alleges Transgrid is making no attempt to engage in good faith over key issues like wages and overtime rates, and

2. as a result of Transgrid’s unwillingness to resolve this long running industrial dispute, further protected industrial action risks adding to a growing connection approval backlog, putting at risk the rapid and efficient roll out of energy transmission projects that are crucial to NSW’s energy transition.That this House further notes that:

  • Transgrid is NSW’s 100% privatised transmission network operator,
  • on 22 May, the Minister for Energy and Climate Change, announced a grant of $8.4 million in new funds to Transgrid and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), to hire more engineers and overcome delays to the rollout of grid connections,
  • Transgrid will reportedly use their $3.2 million portion of the grant to fund extra technical staff on grid connections to overcome connection delays, as well as establish two dedicated ‘squads’ of engineers, technicians and customer support staff, to provide additional grid connection application review and support,
  • the Minister for Energy and Climate Change signed off on this grant to a 100% privatised transmission operator, in the midst of a protracted industrial dispute, without any consultation with the relevant unions, and
  • the grant of millions of dollars of public money to a wholly privatised operator, in the midst of a protracted industrial dispute, does not appear to have any requirements attached regarding industrial relations or worker pay and conditions, or indeed the successful delivery of the projects.

3. That this House expresses its concern that this decision by the Minister amounts to either:

  • a reckless squandering of public money through a dereliction of duty to perform due diligence, and a missed opportunity to improve the pay and conditions for the workers essential to the rapid and equitable rollout of our new generation and transmission infrastructure, or
  • the threat of publicly-funded scab labour undermining the power of ETU and Professionals Australia members at the bargaining table.

4. That this House calls on the Minister to place a temporary pause on the release of this grant funding to Transgrid until the company is able to produce a comprehensive industrial relations plan detailing how it intends to address the current industrial disputes and bargain in good faith.

5. That this House calls on the Minister to, in addition to pausing the announced grants, outline in writing and table to the House:

  • what conditions, if any, were placed on the grant funding awarded to Transgrid to accelerate grid-scale battery connections,
  • what consideration was given, if any, to the ongoing industrial action at Transgrid and its effect on plans to accelerate connections when awarding the grants, and
  • why these grants were awarded to Transgrid without any consultation with trade unions currently engaged in protected industrial action at the company.

 

As The Greens energy and just transitions spokesperson, I have moved this motion to call on the New South Wales Labor Government to make sure that our energy transition is one that is done in consultation and collaboration with workers. As the motion states, since October 2023 more than 400 Electrical Trades Union [ETU] members at Transgrid have been attempting to bargain for a fair pay deal. For more than four months this has seen those members involved in an industrial dispute with their employer. They recently voted overwhelmingly to escalate industrial action in their pursuit of a fair deal. The work conducted by those members, and of their colleagues who are members of Professionals Australia and are also party to the dispute, is critical to the rollout of our new transmission infrastructure on which our clean energy transition is so reliant.

Their log of claims includes simple issues of fairness, like a pay increase that keeps up with the cost of living and improved overtime rates. In the midst of the most significant industrial dispute at Transgrid in three decades, the workers felt blindsided and betrayed when, on 22 May, the New South Wales Government announced that Transgrid would be receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer money to hire additional staff, seemingly with the intent of overcoming the disruptions in business activity that were coming about as a result of their industrial action.

It is no easy thing to take industrial action. It is a decision only ever taken as a last resort through a democratic decision of the workers as the only means by which they can assert their power collectively against an employer they have collectively decided is not treating them with the fairness and dignity they deserve. The ETU has long been a champion of the transitioning of our electrical network towards one that is powered by renewables, recognising the urgent environmental and climate imperative for a rapid transition. It has no desire to delay or obstruct this important transition.

In fact, over a quarter of the ETU's Transgrid membership lives in declared renewable energy zones across New South Wales. Those members have placed their faith in the New South Wales Government to deliver a just energy transition that uplifts them and their communities rather than continuing the status quo of privatisation and a race to the bottom on wages and conditions. It is for this reason that they were so dismayed by the decision of the Government, after zero consultation with the union movement, to publicly fund what appears to be scab labour and, in doing so, undermine their efforts to uplift industry conditions.

An often forgotten piece of the energy transition when we are talking about social licence and community benefit is the need for projects to provide direct economic benefit through locally sourced labour to high quality, safe, secure and well-paying jobs. I note—and the Greens welcome—the resolution that was passed just a fortnight ago at the Australian Council of Trade Unions Congress calling for enhanced climate targets to deliver benefits and economic opportunities for workers and their communities through safe, secure and well-paid jobs. Australian Council of Trade Unions [ACTU] President Michele O'Neil put it right when she said:

The future for a liveable planet is with renewables. To protect the interests of all workers, two things are non-negotiable: that transition happens at the pace required by science, and that it doesn't leave workers or communities behind. Change needs to be both fast and fair.

The fundamental issue at the heart of this motion is that, to these workers, "fast" has been preferenced over "fair". In recent months we have spoken a lot in this Chamber about the power of the Government's procurement dollars to help craft desirable social outcomes. This issue is no different. We should be designing grants and investments in consultation with the workers who will be affected and, where we do pursue partnerships with private interests, we should be imposing conditions on that money to ensure that public money is not being used to drive down wages and conditions while boosting private profits. Those ideas are not terribly complicated or radical. There is no need to be so hands-off—in fact, it is reckless and irresponsible to do so, particularly when we are talking about new economy-shaping industries like the energy transition.

We are all desperate to get on with and speed up the transition. I think The Greens, more than most, are anxious to pick up the pace and we do not want to see obstacles being thrown in the way. But consultation with workers and transparency and accountability with public money should not be seen as obstacles. Workers and the public should be partners—not barriers—to this revolution to our energy network. I hope and suspect the Labor Party would prefer that to be the case as well. There is no need for the old status quo approach to delivering the infrastructure projects. We know how successful a tripartite approach to government can be. I hope we can see our energy transition begin to more closely reflect the aspirations of a genuinely just, worker-led and worker‑focused energy transition. I fear we are doomed to fail if it is any other way. I commend the motion to the House.

The motion was then debated to which Abigail responded:

 I thank Government and Opposition members for their contributions. To clarify, although I do not think that it was suggested otherwise, The Greens support these grants. We are absolutely in lockstep with the Government in the need to invest heavily in renewables infrastructure and in the renewables rollout. This motion is asking that, in the context of the industrial dispute that is occurring, there ideally would have been work conditions placed in the grant, and there would have been consultation with the Electrical Trades Union beforehand so that we did not get to this point. This is something that we have, unfortunately, seen across the world. Every time we do something in a hurry, we often see workers' rights get cut.

We discover every day—and not just in other parts of the world—projects that we have invested in federally through our clean energy fund where there looks to be quite horrific abuses of worker rights. That is why we feel strongly about this important issue, and why we will continue to hound the Government about it. When things are done in a hurry, corners get cut. That is not something that we want to see. I am very happy to have heard the explanation from the Minister and to have that put on record. Hopefully, that will give some comfort to the union involved. As a general concept, we would like a bit more focus on the conditions being placed on any public exercise of money for the renewables rollout to make sure that they bind the company in receipt of the money to abide by best practice industrial labour law.

 

The motion was negatived.

 

Read the full debate in Hansard here.

Join 50,289 other supporters in taking action