The Guardian January 26, 2000


BHP workers draw line in the sand

National and international union organisations are considering action 
against BHP which could result in a national strike shutting down all of 
BHP's Australian operations and the disruption of BHP's iron ore exports. 
This follows the brutal attack by police on peaceful picketers at BHP's 
Mount Newman and Port Hedland iron ore plants in the Pilbara, in Western 
Australia.

Unionists at BHP's Pilbara iron ore operations were holding a four-day 
strike in support of their demand that BHP negotiate on a collective basis 
through their unions and representatives. When workers set up pickets, BHP 
called in police and private security guards to break the picket lines.

In a dawn raid, baton-wielding police charged the mine workers and 
community supporters, brutally assaulting and injuring a number of 
picketers.

Fifteen unionists were arrested and one Australian Manufacturing Workers' 
Union official was hospitalised after being hit by a car trying to break 
through the picket line.

ACTU Secretary-elect Greg Combet said the issues were simple, "the majority 
of BHP employees in the Pilbara iron ore operations want to negotiate a 
collective agreement, but BHP is refusing to meet and negotiate. BHP is 
insisting that all employees [there are around 1,000] sign individual staff 
contracts."

Some workers have been approached as many as 12 times to sign up. Union 
members and their families have been harrassed in mail sent to their homes.

BHP is offering large upfront inducements  as much as $60,000 (in the 
form of paid out sick leave)  to sign the non-union contracts.

Some workers have succumbed and signed and were working during the strike.

BHP expects to quickly recoup its costs with massive savings and no union 
presence to protect workers' interests.

Solidarity

The attack on collective bargaining is not just a matter for BHP employees 
in the Pilbara. Unions and workers around Australia and internationally are 
offering support.

Thousands of transport, coal, maritime and steel workers around Australia 
have held 24-hour stoppages at other BHP operations.

Construction, mining, energy, maritime, manufacturing, administrative, 
nursing, education and casino employees took part in a protest action 
convened by the Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia, outside 
BHP's head office in Perth.

This week the ACTU is considering a simultaneous strike of all BHP's 
divisions in Australia  coal, steel, iron ore, petroleum and transport.

The International Metalworkers' Federation and its affiliates have pledged 
to give whatever support they can to assist in the fight to retain the 
basic trade union rights of freedom of association and collective 
bargaining, in line with ILO Conventions Nos 87 and 98 which Australia has 
ratified and is committed to uphold.

"It is clear that the management of BHP, in following the strategy adopted 
by Rio Tinto, is seeking to completely eliminate any form of collective 
representation in the iron ore mining sector in Australia, and are intent 
on preventing, if at all possible, any return of trade unionism in this 
important sector for the foreseeable future", said the Federation in a 
letter pledging support to its Australian affiliates  the Australian 
Workers' Union (AWU), the AMWU and the Communications, Electrical and 
Plumbing Union (CEPU).

"Furthermore, if they are successful, it will only be a matter of time 
before they and other companies seek to take advantage of the anti-union 
legislation introduced by the extreme right-wing Conservative Government, 
to undermine the basis of collective representation in another industry or 
sector.

"These attacks on basic human and trade union rights are not isolated 
incidents, but part of a concerted challenge to the very principle of 
collective representation and we must not allow them to succeed.

"The outcome of the struggle you are undertaking will have significant 
repercussions far beyond Australia and we applaud your determined stand not 
to allow hard-won trade union rights to be taken away or undermined.

"A victory in one country is a victory for workers everywhere", the letter 
concluded.

The International Metal Federation has called in the International 
Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) which covers dockworkers and seafarers, 
to give assistance.

Most of BHP's iron ore is exported to Japan and South Korea which ITF 
affiliates have the potential to interrupt.

Court action

The five unions directly involved in the dispute  (the AWU, AMWU, CEPU, 
Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), and the Transport 
Workers' Union (TWU)  commenced legal action last week against BHP.

They have sought orders to:

* restrain BHP from offering further individual contracts;
* stop BHP offering illegal inducements to pressure employees to stop being 
members of a union;
* restore equity in working arrangements at the Port Hedland and Mount 
Newman sites;
* uphold the right of employees to be a member of a union and to 
collectively seek an agreement with their employer.

BHP is considering legal action against the CFMEU over its industrial 
action.

Rio Tinto tactics

In recent times it has been companies like Rio Tinto that have pursued 
individual contracts, while BHP continued to negotiate collective 
agreements with the unions.

The sudden change in approach is understood to be connected to the newly 
recruited CEO from the USA, and his aims to make BHP more competitive and 
profitable.

For some time the Japanese and south Korean buyers of iron ore and coal 
have been forcing the price down. BHP and Rio Tinto, the two major mining 
companies in Australia, have competed for sales.

Last year BHP and Rio Tinto worked on a merger of their iron ore operations 
in the West, to put them on a stronger basis when negotiating with the 
Japanese and south Koreans.

The joint venture looked set to go ahead when media reports said it was 
off. But is it off, or just on hold? This is another factor behind BHP's 
action.

Is BHP trying to sort out its workforce, put them on a similar footing to 
Rio Tinto's largely non-union and then go ahead with the joint venture?

CPA General Secretary Peter Symon, asked to comment by The Guardian 
said that both companies want to achieve "competitiveness and 
profitability" at the expense of the workers in their mines.

"While some are being offered financial inducements to sign individual 
contracts they are also expected to leave their unions. Others will lose 
their jobs altogether.

"It is only a matter of time before the individual contracts are revised by 
BHP. When that happens workers will find themselves without unions to back 
them up and help them fight for the rights and conditions that they are 
signing away.

"The CPA supports the struggle of the unions and we welcome the support 
coming from international trade union bodies. It's a great development and 
could become a decisive factor in beating back BHP's attack", he said.

"Within Australia, the same sort of solidarity as came to the support of 
the Maritime Union of Australia needs to be repeated for the mining unions.

"With Australia-wide solidarity and international support BHP can be forced 
to give up its anti-worker and anti-union campaign. Their defeat will also 
be a big defeat for the drive to spread individual work contracts", 
concluded Peter Symon.

Back to index page