HUNDREDS of Hunter region Ausgrid workers are threatening to strike next month if they cannot settle new wages and conditions with the partly privatised poles and wires company.
Strike action could coincide with heavy demand on the power system if the usual hot February weather appears but the unions say they have been left with no choice but to accelerate their campaign for the first Ausgrid pay rises since 2013.
Electrical Trades Union organiser Mark Buttigieg said about 1700 Ausgrid workers took part in a ballot that returned a vote of almost 95 per cent in favour of a range of industrial actions including strikes of up to eight hours.
Mr Buttigieg said it wasn’t the intention of the ETU and other unions involved to inconvenience the public if a strike coincided with an interruption to the power supply. Ausgrid had outages on Monday in Newcastle during the heat.
“The aim of industrial action is to hurt the bottom line of the company, to interfere with its day to day operations, without hurting consumers,” Mr Buttigieg said.
Ausgrid was partly privatised in late 2016 when superannuation and investment funds paid $16.2 billion for a 50.4-per cent stake, with the NSW government keeping the other 49.6 per cent.
Mr Buttigieg said Ausgrid employees had run out of patience after going for so long without a pay rise, while the Ausgrid annual report showed executive salaries rising by more than 5 per cent a year for the past three years, with bonuses of more than $50,000 a time.
A spokesperson for Ausgrid said the company was disappointed at the proposed industrial action and believed the two sides had “achieved in-principle agreement on virtually all of our proposal”.
Mr Buttigieg said that was misleading, because the two items still outstanding were the two most important items in the proposed enterprise agreement: the percentage pay increases and career progression.
The unions were asking for 3 per cent a year for the three years of the agreement, while Ausgrid said it was offering 2.5 per cent a year for the first two years and 2 per cent in the third, plus a $1000 payment.
Mr Buttigieg said the unions objected to Ausgrid’s proposed “career capabilities scheme” because it relied on “management subjectivity” in saying who was upgraded and who wasn’t.
He said Ausgrid had retrenched almost 2000 people in the past four years and was down to a unionised workforce of about 2800, including more than 600 in the Hunter.
Union delegates would meet again on January 31 for a final decision on striking.