A clap of thunder (Australian miners)
guardian at peg.apc.org
Sat Nov 25 07:55:00 MST 1995
A clap of working class thunder
Australia has just experienced one of the most significant trade
union struggles since the mid-1960s. It blew up over a strike
by a relatively small number of workers in the far northern
township of Weipa which is the site of a bauxite mine owned by
one of the world's big mining transnational corporations --
Conzinc Riotinto (Australia) (CRA) and operated by Comalco.(1)
The CRA, at this and other mining sites in Australia, has been
systematically working to eliminate trade unions from its work-
sites. The means by which this was being done was by introducing
individual work contracts. They were first introduced at Weipa
about two years ago although longer at other CRA worksites.
Many workers in need of work and an income were prepared to sign
on. A condition of the contract was that workers give up their
trade union membership. Out of a workforce of about 430 "blue
collar" employees a core of 71 workers refused to sign away their
right to be represented by a trade union and went of strike more
than six weeks ago, demanding that they be paid the same wages as
those on contracts as they were, in many cases, doing the same
The company was paying salary increases to those prepared to sign
contracts of from $12,000 to $15,000 more than it was obliged to
pay under the existing industry award. In other words this rich
company was prepared, initially, to buy out the trade union
membership of its employees. Those who refused to sign contracts
had their overtime cut back, with only two basic pay rises in the
last five years. The cost of living in Weipa is high, with only
one supermarket charging monopoly prices.
Confidential individual contracts became a condition of
employment for new employees. The contacts denied the worker the
right to be represented by a trade union although membership in a
union could be retained.
For almost a century Australia's workers have worked under
industry awards which were legally binding agreements or
arbitrated decisions achieved as a result of both negotiation and
industrial campaigns. These awards applied to all workers
irrespective of whether they were members of a union or not. They
not only covered wages but many working conditions as well.
Another element in the Australian industrial setup was the
Industrial Commission which was part of the judicial system
dealing specifically with industrial disputes. Industrial
Commissioners were appointed by the Government of the day and
included both former employer and trade union representatives as
well as judicial figures. The Industrial Commission had powers to
both conciliate in the course of an industrial dispute and/or to
Workers were happy with this setup and during the course of the
post-war years many wage increases, better conditions of work and
shorter hours of work were achieved. The awards, together with a
well organised trade union movement which enrolled about 55 per
cent of the workforce were powerful barriers in the way of
the employer's drive for ever higher profits. Employers demanded
that this system be modified, or better still, eliminated
The right-wing Labor Party Government, elected in 1983 and in
office continuously since then, was only to willing to oblige the
employers. But it could not succeed with a frontal assault.
Instead, a multi-faceted and a "bit by bit" process was
A principal objective was to weaken the centralized award system
and to replace it with so-called "enterprise bargaining". This
meant that instead of all the workers in a particular industry
or occupation being covered by similar conditions as set out in
the award, a multitude of separate and often different agreements
began to replace the industry-wide awards.
In most cases these agreements were negotiated with the
participation of trade union representatives but in cases where
there were no trade union members, they could be negotiated
without the participation of trade union reps.
Another development was the push by employers to put more and
more workers on individual work contracts, thereby, further
fragmenting the workforce and weakening the trade union movement.
Strange as it may seem, many trade union leaderships seemed to be
oblivious to the inevitable consequences of these developments.
At least they went along with the changes, endorsed them in trade
union Congresses and even applauded the Federal Labor Government
when it gave its support to such measures.
These developments weakened the trade union movement, conditions
of work were lost and the wages of many workers were steadily
Workers became increasingly angry. Many voted with their feet and
left the trade unions. Membership slid from 55 per cent of the
workforce ten years ago to about 35 per cent at the present time.
It was on this background that the Weipa dispute has to be seen.
* Workers were protesting against the contract system.
* They demanded equal pay for equal work.
* That there be collective bargaining agreements negotiated with
the full participation of trade union representatives.
For the first time in many decades, the leadership of the
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) not only lent its
support to the strikers but actually played a leading part in
coordinating solidarity action by other sections of the trade
The apparent change of heart by ACTU leaders can, perhaps be
explained by the growing anger of the workers which is being
reflected in a growing number of industrial disputes. The trade
union leadership also have to take note of the substantial loss
of trade union membership in a short space of time.
It is the policies which have been followed by the trade unions
that have led to serious setbacks for the trade union movement
but there is, as yet, no indication that they are prepared to
basically alter these policies.
Another factor is the proximity of a Federal election. A Labor
Party government has been in office for the last 12 years but
it will be fighting for its survival when the poll is held in the
first half of 1996. In worker ranks there is much disillusionment
with the Labor government and a much higher percentage than usual
is looking for an alternative. Maybe the support for the workers'
cause on this occasion may be an attempt to win back some of the
support which has been lost.
When the CRA took out summonses against striking workers which
carry huge fines as penalties, mineworkers took solidarity action
at other mines operated by CRA and commenced what was slated
as a week-long general stoppage in all Australian coalmines. The
current law also allows companies to sue workers and their unions
for damages caused by a strike.
Waterside workers and seamen, who are now combined in the Maritime
Union of Australia, joined the stoppage and were also prepared to
extend their industrial action around Australia.
Maritime Union (MUA) members imposed a blockade on tugs bringing
ships in and out of Weipa with CRA cargoes.
The dispute was extended internationally with MUA members holding
up a ship handling CRA cargo for two days in New Zealand.
"Until the company makes a genuine commitment to recognizing
unions and equal pay we still have a major dispute and we are not
stopping industrial action", said John Maitland, Joint National
President of the Construction, Forestry and Mining Union (CFMEU),
late last week, responding to pressure to call off their seven-
day national coal miners' strike.
"We are dealing with a company that routinely practices coercion
and intimidation of individuals in the workplace and which
engages in legalistic delaying tactics in the Commission in order
to get its way. This dispute will be over when CRA changes its
=8Aways and not before", he said.
Maritime workers "are prepared to take whatever concerted actions
are necessary to bring this company to heel", Bob Carnegie, south
Queensland Deputy Branch Secretary of the MUA told "The
Nigel Gould, Secretary of the CFMEU Weipa lodge, speaking to "The
Guardian" said that the workers want equal pay and two years'
back pay "and we want a future for our children."
Despite CRA's efforts to divide the workforce at Weipa there was
strong community support for the striking workers.
The ACTU had plans to extend actions against CRA and Comalco to
other industries, including power, oil and chemicals,
manufacturing and all forms of transport.
Messages of solidarity and contributions to the strike fund
poured in from unions and individuals around Australia.
Pensioners sent money, there was support from small businesses in
Weipa -- anonymously of course in a "company town" -- and big
businesses gave discounts. The families of the striking
workers were solid.
The Sydney District Committee of the Socialist Party of Australia
sent a message of solidarity congratulating the workers in
struggle and made a contribution to the support fund.
"Your stand for collectivism, for unionism, is of fundamental
significance in the fight against the de-unionization of the
workforce in Australia, which CRA and other big companies have
set out to achieve", the message said.
The mass media has been trying hard to discredit solidarity
actions and sell workers the line that contracts are inevitable
and that third parties should not be harmed by any industrial
Murdoch's "The Australian" editorial (17/11/95) was typical:
"The changes are desirable and inevitable. The traditional role
of unions has had to give way to the rise of individual choice,
as exercised by the movement towards individual contracts. These
changes provoke two key questions: are they good for workers? and
are they good for the nation? The answer in both cases is 'yes'."
What lies! The choice referred to is a sham. CRA management
refuses to employ any worker who refuses to sign a contract which
excludes union representation. Furthermore, once a contract is
signed, workers are obliged to work as directed and will be
sacked or penalized if they protest.
"The Guardian" criticized the Federal Labor Government saying
that it could, if it had the will, close the loopholes in its
legislation. It is this legislation that has allowed CRA and
other employers to force workers onto individual contracts.
John Maitland, Secretary of the Mineworkers, pointed to the key
principles unions want: "They are observance by CRA of the right
to collectively bargain, the right to equal pay for work of equal
value, and freedom from being discriminated against on the basis
of union membership".
The use of individual contracts must also be beaten. The
negotiation of comprehensive awards covering all workers in an
industry should also be re-established.
Another issue is the right of workers to determine the trade
union they wish to belong to.
In an ACTU conducted ballot, 98 per cent of union members at
Weipa voted for the CFMEU as their preferred union, but the
Australian Workers' Union, with only one member on the site, is
still the principal respondent to the award. The workers want
their preferred union, the CFMEU, to have the legal right to
represent its members.
Some of the contract labour (called "staff" by CRA) are
members of the CFMEU, but they are not allowed to be represented
by the union in dealings with the company. The company must
recognize their union and their right to be represented by the
union in collective negotiations, agreements and awards.
The higher payments to contract labour are not an act of
generosity by CRA. The company has a vision -- no awards, no
unions and each worker on an individual and confidential contract
competing with fellow workers. Every worker would then be at the
mercy of one of the largest, if not the largest mining company in
the world -- CRA-RTZ. That's CRA's agenda.
Faced with the rising anger and mass actions by workers and the
likelihood of the actions spreading to many other sections of the
workforce, the Industrial Commission was called into the dispute
by the Federal Labor Government.
In a statement of principles which are a substantial rebuff to
both the CRA and right-wing government policies the Industrial
Commission declared the "system of collective bargaining is an
essential part of the industrial relations system, fostered and
encouraged by the Industrial Relations Act 1988 and underpinned
by international conventions and standards which Australia has
It said that "Members of unions should not be discriminated
against on the basis of their preferred form of bargaining."
"Unions are entitled to be part of the collective bargaining
process in accordance with the provisions of the Act and other
principles laid down by the Commission."
It outlined a number of forms that collective agreements might
take: consent awards, over-award payments, certified agreements,
Enterprise Flexibility Agreements or paid rates awards.
Surprisingly it did not offer the option of individual contracts.
In fact the Commission reaffirmed an earlier statement that "a
system of individual contracts between a company and each of its
employees is one at variance with our system of industrial
relations, a system which, since its inception, has been based
upon collective processes as the means of providing terms and
conditions of employment at the workplace."
It also reaffirmed that "Equal pay for work of equal value should
be based on a fair assessment ... the Commission will consider
the circumstances of particular cases brought before the
Having decided these principles the Industrial Commission then
ordered a return to work and further negotiations but not before
it had decided on an immediate 8 per cent wage increase for the
Weipa workers not on contracts, backdated to March of last year.
Further negotiations are continuing with the full participation
of the trade unions.
The real significance of the dispute can be summarized:
It showed that workers are prepared and are able to sustain
substantial industrial actions;
A very heavy blow has been struck against the promotion of
individual work contracts. The possibility of companies
"buying off" workers by special benefits has been severely
The principal of "collective bargaining" rather than individual
contracts has been strongly reaffirmed;
The desirability of maintaining the award system rather than
enterprise bargaining will have also been strengthened;
It shows that it is possible to stand up to the might of a giant
transnational corporation, expose its vile policies and strike it
A blow has been struck against the industrial policies of both
the employers and right-wing elements in the leadership of the
Labor Party and the trade union movement.
However, the leaders of the Labor Government have reaffirmed
their policy which calls for enterprise agreements and supports
individual work contracts. One Labor Party leader has spoken of
the Government's policy being one of "unhitching" the workers
The leaders of the ACTU have also not made any clear break with
past policies. Unless they do so, enterprise bargaining and
individual work contracts will continue to erode trade union
membership and strength.
While this strike struggle is a clap of thunder (but not yet a
hurricane), it may herald a much more militant stand by the
trade union movement. The working class has dramatically
demonstrated that the class struggle is alive and well. The
workers have given a resounding raspberry to the incessant
propaganda that employers and employees have common interests.
(1) CRA is 48.95 per cent owned by Tinto Holdings Aust P/L which
is wholly owned by RTZ a British Company.
The Guardian | Phone: (02) 212.6855
65 Campbell Street | Fax: (02) 281.5795
Surry Hills. 2010 | Email:guardian at peg.apc.org
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