‘to the bitter end’: the 1977 State Electricity Commission of Victoria maintenance workers’ dispute

2017-01-09T05:08:19Z (GMT) by Steel, Kathryn May
This thesis describes and analyses the 1977 State Electricity Commission of Victoria maintenance workers’ dispute. As a significant regional industrial dispute, an analysis of its origins and development adds much to our understanding of regional labour history in the Latrobe Valley, as well as making a contribution to the literature on the causes of lengthy Australian disputes. The dispute is examined within its complex local, state and federal context, including relevant economic, political and industrial factors. This influenced both the items in the log of claims which was provided at the start of the dispute in March 1977, and impacted on its course and its ending. While the dispute over the log of claims was expected to be a minor event, the actions of the SECV over a more emotive issue, that of contract labour, provided the trigger for a strike which was ill-advised in its broader context. During the severe power restrictions which were imposed by the SECV over a period of four weeks, industry was almost at a standstill and up to 500,000 workers were stood down. The state government amended the Essential Services Act 1958 (Vic), and had a state of emergency declared. Both the SECV and the state government insisted that the major claims go to arbitration. Despite the length and personal costs of the dispute, in the short term the maintenance workers received little benefit from it. The narrative of the dispute is enhanced by the inclusion of material from interviews of participants. This brings subjectivity to an account otherwise derived from documentary sources. These interviews also indicated three themes which come out in the narrative: the control over the dispute by the rank and file, the extensive support for the dispute from the community, and the effect of the Melbourne-LV divide. The latter operated across the unions and their members, between the local and the state peak councils, and within the SECV. In order to add to our understanding of lengthy disputes, the events of 1977 are analysed using Kelly’s Mobilisation Theory. This provides a greater focus on social relationships and interactions than traditional methods of industrial relations analysis. In particular, it provides a means of incorporating the local industrial identity when considering those factors which impact on the origin and continuation of disputes. The dispute is compared and contrasted to two other lengthy disputes in the Australian electricity industry. These are the South East Queensland Electricity Board 1984-86 dispute over contract labour, and the Electricity Commission of New South Wales 1973 35-hour week dispute. This comparison, which also uses Mobilisation Theory as the research framework, assists in understanding the common or unique features of each dispute, including the particular contexts of each. While Mobilisation Theory has much to offer as a means of examining lengthy disputes, the length of the 1977 dispute is better explained by the changed local, state and federal contexts since previous mobilisations. These were no longer conducive to a dispute which could be viewed as a challenge to the government or to the SECV’s managerial prerogative.