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How one AWU Delegate helped save Australia’s refining industry

May 26, 2021

When Mick Denton signed on at the then-Caltex refinery at Lytton in Brisbane, little did he know he would end up saving the nation’s oil refining capability.

Mick has worked at the refinery, now run by Ampol, since 2005, and became an AWU delegate two years later.

Australia has seen four refineries close in the past decade and Lytton, along with the Viva refinery in Geelong, looked set to follow and move production overseas.

But after Mick’s canny campaign, which highlighted Australia’s lack of fuel security, the Federal Government has just stumped up $2 billion for the refineries to stay put.

The two – Lytton and the Viva Energy refinery Geelong – will be offered up to 1.8c a litre for fuel they produce until 2030.

Mick drove the union wide campaign from the beginning and followed it right through to the eventual victory this month.

“This all started 15 months ago when I called the AWU with an idea that I had been rolling around in my head for a couple of weeks,” Mick says.

“At that point it looked like the last four refineries in Australia were all about to close forever.

“I explained that this was our opportunity, that we could use fuel security as a lever to keep the refineries open.”

“At the time we couldn’t get medical supplies from overseas, or enough personal protective gear, and that was the proof we needed. We as a nation needed refining, and the AWU could make it happen.”

Mick with National Secretary Daniel Walton at Lytton Refinery

Mick was part of a group of refinery workers from across Australia – led by AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton and Assistant National Secretary Misha Zelinsky – that repeatedly took their case to Canberra as well as relevant state governments.

“We worked the cross benches, and had multiple meetings with Energy Minister Angus Taylor, and with Labor to get bipartisan support,” Mick says.

“Our arguments were heavily based on the current geopolitical uncertainty: tensions in the South China Sea; the fact we need to supply fuels for essential services such as defence and emergency services; and to fuel trucks for food delivery.”

Mick spent weeks away from home on the campaign, often working 70 hours a week, but rates it his greatest moment as an AWU delegate.

“To be part of the team that has delivered this outcome is one of my proudest moments. It has been a privilege just to be part of what we’ve been able to accomplish together.”

Mick says the future of the Lytton site looks very positive to 2030 and beyond.

“This was a massive team effort by everyone involved. I can’t thank our Queensland Branch Secretary Steve Baker enough for all his hard work and support.

“His work with the Queensland Government on behalf of all workers at the refinery has given us confidence that well-paid, secure jobs will still exist at our site for many years to come even as the site moves towards our new energy future.”

Mick is also quick to thank his members, and those at other sites.

“I want to thank all the refinery operators at Kwinana, Altona, Geelong and Lytton. They donated $40,000 of their own money to commission a report as part of our campaign.

“It is devastating that we were not able to achieve this same outcome for our brothers and sisters at the Kwinana and Altona. Had governments acted sooner – I’m confident we could have kept all four refineries operating in Australia.

“But more than 1200 workers at the remaining refineries now have their livelihoods guaranteed until 2027, with both sites most likely staying open until 2030. This is life-changing for many of these workers.

“Seeing these workers, my friends, at the refinery now, smiling and hopeful for the future, is truly worth all of the sacrifice.”

Mick also praises the Australasian Refineries Operative Committee, which he chairs.

Alongside AWU members, he has worked closely on AROC, representing workers in the Australian oil and gas industry.

“I’ve made life-long friendships with delegates and officials from the NUW, CFMEU Mining and Energy, ETU and AMWU.

“AROC has been around for more than 25 years and if it wasn’t for the refinery delegates who came before me we would never have been able to organise this fuel-security campaign.

“I want to thank these trade union and oil industry legends.”

Now the remaining refineries’ futures are sound, Mick is back at Lytton. He says work on his site never stops, but his 200 AWU members are “loyal as”.

Past wins have included an EA that locked in some of the largest pay gains and best conditions in the country.

Health and safety is also paramount for AWU members onsite. Mick and his team run the safety committee on site and a number of delegates are also HSRs.

“Safety is everything. I want to make sure every worker on our site – not just members – makes it home safely each day,” he says.

“Lately we have focused on avoiding exposure to hazardous substances.

“We are also supporting women members, in areas such as: ensuring they still get their penalty rates when, due to pregnancy, they can’t work out at the plant; protecting female workers from mercury poisoning; and establishing mothers’ rooms and other women’s facilities.”

Mick says his fellow delegates are crucial in their support, and he reckons he couldn’t do half the work needed without them.

“I think I have the best team in the country. These smart and dedicated unionists are always working hard for our members.”

To be a great delegate, Mick says it helps to know a bit about industrial regulations, particularly Work Health and Safety legislation, the Fair Work Act, as well as the ins and outs of your site. But it’s more than just knowledge.

“If you can’t cop bullies, and if you can’t turn a blind eye to someone who needs help, then you already have nearly all the qualities needed to be a great delegate,” he says.

“Never lose focus on the fact that you and your members are the AWU. Be proud of your union, and keep fighting the good fight.”

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