A shadowy astroturf group led by two Liberal Party operatives has emerged to bend public opinion in the bitter Baiada Poultry workplace dispute.

A press release was distributed yesterday on behalf of a so-called “People Power Group” comprising “non-union” employees of the chicken processor, which is locked in a stand-off with its unionised workforce over wages and conditions.

The NUW has erected a picket line around the company’s Laverton North plant, which has been shutdown since last Wednesday.

While it didn’t refer to any individual by name, the release spruiking a “peaceful” counter-protest at Julia Gillard’s Altona office included the mobile phone number and personal email address of one-time Liberal Higgins hopeful Jason Aldworth.

Yesterday afternoon, Aldworth arrived at the PM’s digs accompanied by former Maribyrnong Liberal candidate Hamish Jones, who was disendorsed in 2007 for branding then-state Labor transport minister Lynne Kosky a “bitch” and a “f-ckwit” on his personal blog.

The duo oversaw the delivery of “poster-sized” petition to the Prime Minister. About 25 protesters waved placards daubed with phrases like “I want to go to work”, which looked to have been cheaply produced at Officeworks.

When they arrived they were confronted by NUW members, 220 of whom are on strike.

However, Crikey understands many “People Power” members were reluctant to protest and had to have their arm twisted by Aldworth to confront their fellow employees. Some are believed to be supervisors, Baiada contractors or disenfranchised ex-Meatworkers still smarting from a previous demarcation dispute with the union.

Victoria Police attacked the picket line on Friday night following a Supreme Court injunction preventing NUW officials, but not members of the community, from blocking access to the site. The dispute has attracted wall-to-wall media coverage with the Sunday Herald Sun devoting its front page to the clash.

Baiada was represented in court by HR Nicholls Society favourite Stuart Wood and Tanya Cirkovic, who did her articles at Kroger & Kroger in the late ’80s and worked with Peter Costello on the Dollar Sweets case. Senior Liberals including Eric Abetz are believed to be keen to turn the dispute into a talismanic attack on Labor’s Fair Work legislation.

Aldworth – a former employee of Michael Kroger’s investment bank JT Campbell – was Liberal state vice-president and is currently a director of the controversial Civic Group, the lobbying outlet formed following his defection from CPR Communications alongside ex-John Pandazopoulos staffer Brett Miller and former ALP state secretary Andres Puig. He was slated to replace Costello in Higgins before Kelly O’Dwyer intervened.

Aldworth declined to be quoted on the record this morning, however Crikey understands he being paid directly by Baiada management to engineer the anti-union message.

His offsider Jones has on several occasions employed tactics similar to those on display yesterday.

In the now infamous 2003 DVD State of the Union, documenting the struggle for control of the Melbourne University Student Union, Jones is exposed rorting the club affiliation process to setup a front-group called “Free Beer” to mislead supporters of the popular More Beer to channel support to the ruling Liberal and Labor Right clique.

He was slated to run against Bill Shorten in Maribyrnong in 2007 but was disendorsed after he insulted Kosky on his blog Ranting and Rambling.

Aldworth’s Civic Group was exposed last year when it emerged as the brains behind the “Alliance of Australian Retailers”, a Big Tobacco-funded front astroturf operation purporting to represent small business owners protesting the federal government’s plain packaging legislation.

Baiada is run by BRW Rich-Lister John Camilleri with his family boasting a total wealth of $495 million (up from $372 million last year). In 2009, the company pulled off the landmark acquisition of Bartter-Steggles, leaving the firm with a massive 35% of the Australian poultry market.

A spokesperson for the company did not respond to requests for comment this morning.

NUW state secretary Tim Kennedy said that Baiada’s competitors were planning a fresh kill to keep chicken supplies moving and that he “hoped the company would come back with serious ideas to settle this dispute.”

Peter Fray

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