The Guardian July 19, 2000


An uneasy truce in the Hunter Valley coalmine dispute

by Peter Mac

After 18 months of negotiations, officials of the Construction, Forestry, 
Mining and Engineering Union and management representatives of Rio Tinto's 
Mount Thorley mine in the NSW Hunter Valley have reached a tentative 
agreement, following three years of bitter dispute.

The "knife-edge" agreement would preserve the principle of collective 
bargaining, which since 1993 the company has sought to replace with 
individual contracts, in order to force unions out of the workplace and 
reduce wages and conditions.

The agreement would in effect re-establish the relativity of awards for 
workers at the Hunter Valley mines.

It would also include a one-off payment of $4,500, plus an immediate 
average pay rise of $5,000 per annum. This would bring wages at this mine 
to $85,000 p.a. on average, with a top rate of $96,000 p.a..

However, the agreement also involves the unrestricted use of contractors 
and the introduction of 12-hour shifts, the breakdown of demarcations and 
an end to seniority.

Although the company failed to eliminate collective bargaining, the use of 
individual contracts is still allowable under the agreement.

Unionists' suspicions of the company's intentions deepened after the 
jubilant reaction of Coal and Allied management, on announcement of the 
agreement.

Although it is for three years, it is entirely possible that the company 
will try to replace as many regular employees as possible with contractors 
and individual contract workers over that period.

Mount Thorley workers will vote on the tentative agreement next Tuesday, 
July 25. Even if they vote to accept the deal it by no means signals an end 
to Rio Tinto's disputes with its employees.

Last week workers from Rio Tinto's Hunter Valley mine, together with 
company employees in the US, Chile, Brazil, Norway and South Africa, held a 
one-day stop-work meeting against its failure to negotiate with workers and 
its abysmal record on labour relations and human rights in Australia and 
around the world.

The meeting was told of Rio Tinto's continuing violation of human rights, 
including three current mass unfair dismissal cases and a court judgement 
against the company for victimisation of union members.

CFMEU National Secretary John Maitland said of the Mt Thorley tentative 
agreement that union campaigns to influence Rio Tinto shareholders had 
clearly provided a further incentive for the company to settle the Hunter 
Valley dispute.

However, the mineworkers expressed wariness of extending trust to the 
company and voted unanimously to continue the international campaign 
against it.

John Maitland commented that: "If the Mt Thorley proposal is used by Rio 
Tinto as simply a public relations exercise to deflect the international 
campaign against it then further progress will be slow. The company has a 
long way to go to regain the confidence of its workers and their 
communities."

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