The Guardian February 21, 2001


Unions opt for action against BHP

by Marcus Browning

Unions representing workers at BHP Iron Ore in the Pilbara, in Western 
Australia, have decided to discontinue their appeal against Justice Susan 
Kenny's decision in the Federal Court which said that it was legal for BHP 
to offer its workers individual contracts. The unions have announced a 
campaign of action, including rolling strikes, at BHP's iron, steel, coal 
and gas projects, issuing a notice of protected industrial action under the 
Workplace Relations Act.

The campaign, coordinated by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), 
will be aimed at maintaining the right to collectively bargain  to fight 
for a collective agreement  and against individual contracts.

It appears the newly elected Labor Government in Western Australia played a 
part in the decision to abandon the appeal, as well as the company's 
intention to drag the case out in the courts.

"The new Labor Government in WA has pledged to scrap [former Premier] 
Richard Court's Workplace Agreements Act and establish fair collective 
bargaining laws", said ACTU Secretary, Greg Combet.

He said the unions had been advised that regardless of who won the Federal 
Court appeal, it would most likely go to an appeal in the High Court.

"The prospect of yet more legal costs and a long delay in the final 
resolution of the matter was a serious concern for the unions", said Mr 
Combet.

As a result of the unions' decision to discontinue their appeal, the 
Federal Court injunction restraining BHP from offering individual contracts 
will be lifted, as will the restriction on unions taking legally protected 
industrial action.

The current struggle began in November 1999, when BHP started offering 
around 1,000 iron ore workers individual contracts. The company refused to 
negotiate an agreement with the workers.

More than half refused to sign the contracts, which contained lucrative 
incentives, including a 12 percent pay rise and other benefits not 
available to workers covered by the enterprise agreement.

The unions  led by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union  
argued that the individual contracts had unlawfully discriminated against 
union members and sought to induce workers to leave their union, thus 
contravening the "freedom of association" section of the Workplace 
Relations Act.

The unions were then granted a Federal Court injunction in January 2000 
which prevented BHP from making any further offers of individual contracts. 
This was followed by industrial action across all BHP divisions.

Justice Kenny's decision on January 10 this year severed the connection 
between laws protecting the rights of workers to belong to a union from 
their right to collective bargaining, and found that in law, removing the 
right to collective bargaining was not an inducement to leave the union.

"What workers in the Pilbara are saying is that BHP must respect their 
right to collectively bargain  they will not sign individual contracts", 
said Greg Combet.

"The ACTU and the unions will continue to support this demand. BHP should 
recognise the views of its own workers and take the necessary steps to 
resolve this dispute."

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