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."