ESSO'S key maintenance contractor at its Bass Strait oil and gas operations is seeking novel Federal Court orders to restrain unions from using a giant inflatable rat named Scabby as part of its damages claim over a two-month picket.
A video of Scabby the Rat being deflated and surrounded by supporters, has been circulating social media at the weekend, accompanied by The Last Post and a minute's silence.
The Australian Financial Review reported that UGL subsidiary MTCT Services' legal action last week is the first Australian challenge to 'Scabby the Rat', which has survived multiple court cases in the United States and is protected under that country's right to freedom of speech.
MTCT has accused the Australia Workers' Union, the Australian Maintenance Workers Union and the Electrical Trades Union of using the rat and other picket signs at Esso's Longford plant to coerce current and "prospective" employees not to work and to engage in anti-competitive conduct that has caused "substantial loss" to the business.
On Friday, the unions undertook without admissions to "deflate and remove" the "rat known as Scabby" and not display any signs reading "Don't be Scabby the Rat" pending a final decision from the court.
The unions also agreed to remove an "Employee of the Day" board that named any workers who crossed the picket line and to delete any similar employee lists from social media.
The AFR reported a copy of the undertakings said union organisers had agreed to stay at least 20 metres away from the home of any MTCT employee without prior permission and not phone them or engage in conduct that is "threatening, obstructive, harassing, intimidating or a nuisance".
Retrenched maintenance workers have maintained a protest outside Esso's Longford gas plant since June to protest UGL's attempt to shift them to its MTCT subsidiary with 15 to 30 per cent less pay and the possibility of two week fly-in, fly-out rosters.
The unions claim fewer than 20 out of 200 workers have signed up to MTCT, and warned that Esso's onshore and offshore operations would soon become vulnerable to safety risks due to the lack of preventative maintenance work performed.
UGL has consistently declined to comment to the Gippsland Times on the issue.
Australian Workers Union Victorian assistant secretary Liam O'Brien told the AFR said that there was "such distress about an inflatable rat would be laughable", if it was not for the fact that workers are having their "lives turned upside down so a giant multinational could add a little bit more to its bottom line".
An Esso spokesman told the AFR "our operations are not impacted and our workforce is able to access the site".
"Our most important consideration is the safety of our people and the continued, safe operation of our plant to meet the energy needs of our customers.
"We urge the parties involved to end the union protest and not interfere with people's right to work."
Unions have likened the Esso industrial dispute to the six-month Carlton United Breweries picket last year, which resulted in maintenance workers retrenched and invited to sign up to a new contractor on substantially lower pay.
CUB later rehired the workers on their original conditions.
Labor's Shadow Assistant Minister for Workplace Relations Lisa Chesters attended the Longford site yesterday to speak with protesters, saying the misuse of labour hire was "out of control".
"Far too often I am meeting workers who have been sacked and offered their jobs back for less pay..." she said.
Ms Chesters called on the federal government to intervene.
"Sadly, the federal government is ignoring the issue and is instead focused on an inflatable rat,"she said.
"It's hard to believe that Fair Work Australia and the Liberal National federal government care more about the inflatable protest rat (Scabby) than they do about workers who have been sacked and offered their jobs back with pay and conditions cuts of up to 45 per cent.
"The direction from Fair Work Australia to the protesting workers to remove the inflatable rat, but not address the reason why workers and their families are protesting speaks volumes about the priorities of the federal government.
"If Fair Work Australia makes a bad call or starts to grossly favour big multinationals over local workers, it's up to the federal government to act and balance the scales."
Ms Chesters said the "massive pay cuts" would affect families and local communities.
"That kind of hit to the household budget would hurt any family," she said.
"The Longford workers [yesterday] morning told me that it means less will be spent in local shops and restaurants.
"A few will postpone things like home renovations and holidays.
"Some said they will find it hard to pay for their kids' school fees and health insurance."
But Australian Mines and Metals Association workplace relations director Amanda Mansini described it as "a grave day when the Australian Labor Party weighs in to support a union dispute which threatens to disrupt the plant supplying half of Victoria's gas".
"There are reports of workers facing threats and intimidation for choosing to go to work and earn their living," she claimed.
"A giant inflatable rat known as 'Scabby', and a sign naming and shaming individual workers, are examples of such union tactics only just removed by court order on Friday.
"The merits of any industrial dispute are not relevant because a resort to lawlessness can never be justified."
Ms Mansini said the dispute was not about low paid and ill-treated workers.
"The work won by UGL is a five-year maintenance contract, meaning five years of employment for local Gippsland workers; and the base rate of pay offered by UGL is high.
"Offshore workers will earn $186,000 per year for 22 weeks' work, for a base trade position, the same level as oil and gas workers at other operations right across Australia.
"It's true that the offshore roster is new.
“Indeed, it provides an extra 13 days of leave each year to these workers.
“The grim reality here is that we have a union who sees fit to resort to illegal activity when it does not get what it wants.
“How will it all end?
“It won’t unless the unions, and the broader Labor movement, stop playing these industrial games and start acting in the interests of the Australian community.
“Workers need these jobs and Australia needs the gas.”
In a show of support to protesters, the Transport Workers Union has transported two large containers to the Longford protest site for use by protesters, which were used in the CUB dispute.
Australian Workers’ Union spokesperson Jeff Sharp told the Gippsland Times one of the containers had a fully decked out kitchen, and the other a television room.
He said support at the protest site remained strong, with up to 40 or 50 people on site some days.
“They come and go; some find a bit of work to try and scratch out a living,” he said.
Mr Sharp said community support had also been strong, with people dropping off food and firewood.
“The support we have been getting is great,” he said.
“This is the biggest issue that we’ve ever faced.
“No-one’s ever done this before.”
Scabby the Rat, a staple in US industrial protests, made its first Australian appearance at the CUB dispute and unions have since ushered him out at pickets across the country.
While the Fair Work Commission issued landmark anti-bullying orders to ban the words “scab” and “rat” at the CUB picket, Scabby himself has so far escaped censure.
The AFR reported parties in the dispute were expected to name a trial date by August 21.