The Guardian May 31, 2000


BHP workers back union rights

Last week workers at BHP's Newman and Port Headland plants voted to back 
a new agreement over terms and conditions, subject to the company agreeing 
to the acceptance of seven points of principle regarding trade union 
rights.

The vote is an important step in the ongoing dispute over (among other 
things) the issue of individual contracts. The company has indicated that 
it will probably agree to the incorporation into the award of gains won in 
previous bargaining and the inclusion of a clause to guarantee the right of 
unions to be represented during the bargaining process.

The inclusion of the union representation clause in particular would be a 
significant victory for the Pilbara workers and other BHP employees. 
Throughout their history the strategy of BHP and other major employer 
groups has been to shoulder unions out of the enterprise bargaining 
process, and to discourage employees from union involvement. This has 
gained a particularly sharp focus since the coming to power of the Howard 
government and the passing of Peter Reith's sinister Industrial Relations 
Bill, which promotes individual work contracts.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before the dispute is finally 
resolved. Despite the encouraging statements of BHP representatives, the 
company has as yet given no firm commitment on union representation and 
award gains, and has indicated that it will oppose inclusion in the 
agreement of other issues involved in the Pilbara workers' seven points of 
principle.

The president of BHP's iron ore operations, Graeme Hunt, said that some of 
the conditions demanded by the Pilbara workers were "very worrying" and 
that they had never been on the agenda before. Union representatives have, 
however, pointed out that the issues arise directly from the implementation 
of the Industrial Relations Bill. Some of the union demands are simply 
intended to avoid protracted industrial disputes. For example, unions 
involved in the dispute are seeking the inclusion of a commitment to 
discussion of a further agreement before the current one expires, and a 
mechanism for the settlement of collective disputes.

The Pilbara workers have steeled themselves for a further stage in their 
long struggle for industrial rights. They have now pledged $60,000 to fund 
a court battle by the ACTU against the company, and have agreed to raise 
futher funds with a $30 per week levy.

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