Weipa: A win for Unions
guardian at peg.apc.org
Thu Feb 1 16:07:41 MST 1996
Weipa: A win for unions
(The following article was published in "The Guardian", newspaper
of the Socialist Party of Australia in its issue of Wednesday,
January 31st, 1996. Contact address: 65 Campbell Street, Surry
Hills. Sydney. 2010 Australia. Fax: 612 281 5795. Email:
<guardian at peg.apc.org>
Subscription rates on request)
WEIPA: A WIN FOR UNIONS
Workers at CRA/Comalco's bauxite mine in Weipa (far north
Queensland) have had a victory in the struggle for equal pay and
trade union rights. Following a seven week strike by 75 workers
last year, backed by solidarity actions in other mines and on the
waterfront around Australia, the Australian Industrial Relations
Commission (IRC) has upheld the important and basic right of
workers to collective bargaining and trade union representation
without discrimination. It is an important win for the trade
union movement. It can become a first step towards the abolition
of individual contracts and non-union workplaces.
by Anna Pha (Ediitor "The Guardian")
The attack on workers at Weipa is part of the multi-billion
dollar transnational CRA's campaign to rid its mines of unions
and institute the old "master servant" relationship.
At Weipa the company offered workers non-union individual
contracts -- the carrot was a wage increase of anything between
$6,000 and $16,000 or more a year, after four years without a
wage rise. Around half the "blue collar" workforce was lured to
accept individual contracts.
All new employees since 1994 have been obliged to sign individual
employment "staff contracts" which deny them the right to trade
The company continued to discriminate against those who remained
on the award in not only wages but in other aspects such as the
allocation of work and overtime. It was not interested in doing
business with the unions.
Three main demands
The strike, with strong backing from the ACTU, the local
community, members of the Miners, Maritime and other unions and
individuals around the country, focused on three main demands:
equal pay for work of equal value, the right to union
representation; no discrimination against those who preferred
It was, in essence, a struggle in defence of trade unionism and
the right to collective bargaining, but it did not challenge
The workers had their first taste of victory on November 21 last
year when a Full Bench of the IRC awarded them an interim wage
rise of eight per cent back dated to March 1994. The IRC decision
reaffirmed that the "system of collective bargaining is an
essential part of the industrial relations system..." and said
that "Members of unions should not be discriminated against on
the basis of their preferred form of bargaining".
Union rights upheld
In its decision of January 23, a Full Bench of the IRC found that
CRA-Comalco had an unequivocal policy at Weipa of treating award
employees "less favourably" than those under individual staff
"This policy, we conclude, is unfair and discriminates against
the award employees concerned based solely on their choice to
enter into collective bargaining through their respective union,
rather than "negotiate" one to one on the basis of the Company's
two party staff system.
"A policy which holds that employees who are members of unions
must, as a group, be discriminated against on the grounds that
they wish to be represented by their union in collective
bargaining, is inconsistent with the Act", the IRC concluded.
The Commission made an interim order for award workers to receive
the same pay and conditions as contract labour.
The IRC's finding that the company discriminated against award
workers and that that was contrary to the Act is an important
victory for the union movement at a time when companies like CRA
are trying to exclude unions from negotiations and from the
The award workers at Weipa feel their strike action has been
vindicated by the Commission's decision and at mass meetings last
week union members seemed generally pleased with the interim
decision. It should result in equal treatment and equal wage
rates with the contract labour.
There is, however, considerable disquiet among union members over
some implications of the decision.
To receive the wage rise, award workers will have to accept the
conditions contained in the individual contracts -- but they have
the right to do so through their union.
The ACTU claim, reflecting the key demands during the strike, did
not seek to have individual contracts prohibited. Instead it
sought to establish a "level playing field". But, in effect, the
ACTU traded off existing award conditions to argue the case for
Performance based pay
The ACTU recognised that this involved acceptance of contract
conditions like "annualised" wage rates and participation in the
company's "personal effectiveness review" (PER) system. The
consequences of this were not fully understood by members
agreeing to accept equal working conditions.
PER involves an annual performance appraisal on an individual
basis by management. Last year workers received payments of up to
10 per cent extra following management appraisal.
To use the company's own words: "The foundation of the PER
process is a managerial judgement of the individual subordinate's
work effectiveness in the context of the work that is assigned by
the manager. That judgement is not just about the physical
outputs of the tasks assigned but much more about the manner in
which they are carried out..." (Note the use of the word,
This means that the employer can still determine wages on an
individual basis even if, as the IRC says, it should be "based on
fair assessment criteria". In these circumstances the award will
offer no more than a minimum safety net.
The PER system as it stands denies workers the right to
independent arbitration or to support from the union. The wage
outcome is not decided through collective bargaining. The IRC
decision opens up the possibility for union involvement and
redress to the IRC in cases of unfair decisions which contract
workers did not have before. This is a setback for CRA.
None-the-less, the real danger of the individual performance-
based wages system is that it pits worker against worker, and
gives the company more power to intimidate and victimise
militants and union members. The Commission's decision
specifically accepts the PER system.
There are other aspects of the contracts which are of concern.
CRA has succeeded, if the award workers agree to the IRC's
conditions, in having its whole workforce put onto conditions
which it unilaterally determined without any negotiations with
unions or even individual workers.
Award workers will lose overtime payments, penalty rates for
weekends and public holidays and allowances for shift work.
The contracts also contain a section on "your commitment to
Comalco" which states that it is a condition of employment that
you "do not undertake any paid or unpaid activity which is
damaging to the interests of the Company".
The company is the sole judge of what is in conflict with its
interests. A list of activities (religious, political, sporting,
etc) that would not normally be in conflict is given. Trade union
activity is not listed as acceptable.
The aim of CRA/Comalco is to have a union-free workplace. The
Company claims that trade unionism involves a conflict of
interest -- "them and us" as against absolute loyalty to the
CRA consultant Dr Macdonald who has advised on changes at CRA's
New Zealand Aluminium, Boyne and Bell Bay Smelters, Hammersley
Iron and Comalco Minerals and Alumina explained to the IRC:
"A staff relationship is not simply a matter of 'more money' or
'better conditions', it is a very particular working relationship
within a very particular context...
"If a person chooses to enter a staff relationship that person is
making a statement of trust...
This "relationship of trust" is contrasted with one where the
group is represented by a "third party" (a trade union) which is
not based on trust but is essentially adversarial. "It results
from a fundamental assumption that capital and labour have
contrary interests. The employees' view is that there is strength
in numbers, as a necessary defence against the company...", said
Mr Stewart, managing director of Comalco Smelting argued that
"the employee's decision to step away from the three party system
to a two party system ... [to] give its loyalty ... to the
Company rather than to the collective" is worth paying extra.
The extra now is a downpayment for the future when the company is
rid of unions and can then really screw its workforce.
The company does not want a class conscious workforce pursuing
its own interests. Its aim is a compliant union-free workplace
where it is free to exploit workers to the hilt and look after
the interests of its shareholders. The company is not going to
give up the class struggle, it only wants workers to do that. Its
"two party system" is a weapon in the class war it expects its
labour force to abandon.
The IRC went to great pains to limit its decision to Weipa and
did not question the individual contract system:
"We should make it clear that our decision should not be
interpreted as having any implications regarding the operation of
staff contracts and/or performance based schemes which operate
outside awards beyond Weipa. Staff contracts and performance
based pay schemes have operated successfully and continue to do
so for both the employers and the employees concerned in many
industries over a long period of time.
"This is not a decision which seeks to restrict or prohibit the
use of staff contracts operating alongside, or in conjunction
with, the award system. The Commission's intervention is only
warranted where there is an identifiable unfairness in their
operation or they are found to be inconsistent with the scheme of
the Act", the IRC said.
The ACTU through its submission has effectively condoned a
parallel system of individual contracts alongside awards. It is
like being a bit pregnant. Once contracts are allowed in the door
they will be very hard to stop.
The details of the application of the decision still have to be
worked out. The company and unions will return to the IRC in two
weeks with proposals on outstanding matters.
There will also be a longer term review of the award and there is
uncertainty among union officials who spoke to "The Guardian" as
to what will be involved.
The growing problem of individual work contracts has to be
confronted by the trade union movement. Individual contracts and
collective awards are mutually exclusive. The decision by the IRC
is an uncomfortable compromise which treats an effect but not the
cause. If an attempt is made to merely argue the relationship
between awards and individual work contracts, while accepting the
contract system, it is likely that awards will become only a set
of minimum standards or a "safety net". This will effectively
destroy the importance and value of awards even though they are
extended to cover all workers.
The unions have a job now to heal differences that have been
created by the company between some of the contract labour and
award workers. A number of contract workers are expected to
return to the union when the ink is dry on the new wages.
But, two things are certain, CRA/Comalco is not about to abandon
its anti-union agenda and the union members at Weipa are ready
and as determined as ever to continue the struggle. The ACTU
disputes committee will be in Weipa this week to meet the workers
and the 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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