Unions affiliated with the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) voted recently to use any lawful means necessary to stop the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from a Chevron natural gas extraction project in Australia unless the company stops its union busting campaign at the project.
The dock workers section of ITF meeting in Perth, Australia passed a motion of solidarity with workers at the Chevron Gorgon gas project at Barrow Island, a remote island off the coast in Western Australia.
At the meeting, ITF President Paddy Crumlin said that he would declare the docks at Barrow Island a port of convenience when Chevron begins shipping gas from the project.
Such a declaration could lead to acts of solidarity at ports throughout the world that could prevent shipments of LNG from Barrow Island from being unloaded.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has accused Chevron of disregarding labor standards such as the right of workers to join a union and bargain collectively and the right to a reasonable level of health and safety standards at the Gorgon project.
“Chevron continues to seek to exclude my union from an Australian island to export natural gas which belongs to all Australians,” said Crumlin, who is also MUA’s national secretary. “Unless this changes, when the first shipment leaves Barrow Island, it will be declared a port of convenience.”
Crumlin added that Chevron has failed to build infrastructure and make improvements that it promised to local Barrow Island residents.
Chevron’s Gorgon project is a massive energy project that includes the building of offshore gas wells, a pipeline, an onshore facility where natural gas will be transformed into its liquefied form, docks and warehouses where equipment and supplies for the project are received and stored, and harbor equipment that will fill large ocean-going tankers with LNG for transport to the international market.
Chevron and its partners, a consortium of international energy companies, broke ground on the project in 2009.
The original cost of the project was estimated to be $37 billion, but the cost has ballooned to $54 billion.
Chevron originally told investors that it would begin shipping LNG by 2014, but Chevron failed to meet that milestone.
The company then said that shipping would begin by the summer of 2015, but now, Chevron says that the Gorgon project is only 90 percent complete and that gas shipment may not begin until the end of 2015.
Shell, one of Chevron’s partners on the project, estimates that gas shipments won’t begin until 2016.
The delays have raised concerns among the project’s investors, and Chevron is blaming the delays on the project’s unions and union workers.
When the Gorgon project began in 2009, Chevron signed labor agreements with MUA and other Australian unions setting wages and labor standards for the project.
But workers on the project complained that Chevron and its subcontractors did not always follow the terms of the agreement.
In 2012 things came to a head when dock workers at the Barrow Island port facility staged a walkout to protest poor health and safety conditions.
The lack of health and safety that caused the workers’ protest were part of a wider problem of mismanagement on the project.
The mismanagement problems are documented in a report written by Brandon Ellem, professor of labor relations at the University of Sydney Business School. The report was commissioned by MUA.
Among other things, the report says that poor communications between Chevron and its subcontractors and workers, an inefficient computer system used to plan and schedule work, logistical problems associated with the project’s remoteness, and the enormity and complexity of the project itself are the cause of the project’s delays and cost overruns.
Ellem’s report was published after Chevron reacted to the workers’ health and safety walkout by blaming union activity for the project’s slow progress. Among other things, Chevron accused the workers of being overpaid and lazy.
The company’s anti-union discourse came to a head in 2014 when Chevron filed suit against MUA for the workers’ 2012 walkout and demanded $20 million in damages.
According to the union, if Chevron wins the lawsuit and wins $20 million in damages, it would in effect bust the union.
But Professor Ellem’s report contends that Chevron’s lawsuit and anti-union media campaign is a smokescreen designed to obscure the company’s own faults.
He points out that the project’s labor costs are only 1 percent of the project’s total cost and couldn’t possibly account for the $17 billion cost overrun.
The report also shows that Chevron’s complaints about lack of productivity on the job are baseless.
“Is (blaming unions and workers) an adequate explanation (for the cost overruns and delays)?” asks Ellem in the report. “The short answer is: no. . . This report suggests these behaviors are more about blame-shifting than genuine analysis.”
At the ITF dock workers section meeting where the federation said that Barrow Island would be declared a port of convenience unless Chevron stops its union busting, Crumlin condemned Chevron’s blame-shifting and urged the company to work with unions to resolve the problems that have delayed the project.
“Employers need to clearly decide whether they want to work with unions – and we’ll be there – or against unions – and we’ll be there as well,” said Crumlin.