The term ‘power cuts’ is misleading. The technical complexity of the National Grid meant that the workers could not themselves institute power cuts across the board. They could only reduce generation, which is not the same thing
The PSA advised the State Services Commission of which generating stations would reduce generation and the times of such reduction. The threat to reduce generation meant that the operators at the National Grid would have to take steps to manage this reduction. Workers in the transmission areas (ie sub-station operators) would never try to influence power distribution as this could result in severe and lasting damage to the transmission system and even the National Grid itself.
The scale of generation reduction and the time it was proposed meant that it was unlikely that there would be power cuts to the public. What would happen is that the National Grid would have to turn on standby stations to meet the demand for electricity. This would mean the firing up of the oil-fired stations, at Marsden and other high-cost resources. Thus the PSA action would result in considerable increases in power costs. The other factor was that a reduction in generation by the workforce, in a careful and non-damaging way, undermined the ‘management of the system’ by the Electricity Department. Thus ‘power cuts’, though strong publicity propaganda for the government was not really at issue – it was more ‘political power’. The Government baulked at the possibility that the PSA could manage the generation of electricity in such a way as to cost millions and thereby pressure the SSC into making concessions in employment negotiations.
Muldoon’s threat to invoke the Public Safety Conservation Act demonstrated the strength of feeling of the Government. This Act arose out of the legislation used to break the 1951 Waterfront lockout. As the dispute rose to a crescendo in Labour Weekend 1983 those of us involved sat in PSA House discussing whether we would come to work on Tuesday ready to be arrested and put into goal without trial or what other options we had. Colin Clark, the Deputy General Secretary, the best negotiator I ever knew, said they’d have to drag him out and I thought I’d be with him. It was Colin who put up the idea to get Ron Burgess, Chairperson of the Combined State Unions and Jim Knox Secretary of the Federation of Labour to get to Muldoon through the Chairperson of the SCC with an offer for them to mediate. This was successful and we all drew back from the brink.
It was hard to get Electricity Department members, a public-spirited group if ever there was one, to threaten any serious industrial action. But it was even harder to get them to draw back once they had committed themselves. There were underground rumblings that they were being put up to action by the PSA and turned off when it got to hot. With over 5,000 members the Group had a variety of views, but primarily they were loyal to their union and after a bit of heated discussion things soon got back to normal.
Bill Thomas, Senior Industrial Officer Electricity Group (National Office)