The Guardian April 25, 2001


Workers gear up for BHP-Billiton merger

by Peter Mac

Employees at BHP's coal mines and export coal loading terminal won a major 
victory last week in hearings before the Australian Industrial Relations 
Commission (AIRC). In deciding to refuse the company's application to 
terminate enterprise bargaining periods, the Commission effectively 
sanctioned the strike by BHP workers over the right to collective 
bargaining which has cost the company $100 million and 155 days of lost 
production.

The Commission rejected the company's argument that the industrial dispute 
was causing serious damage to the Australian economy and should therefore 
be subject to compulsory arbitration under the Workplace Relations Act.

It commented that "It is difficult to accept that the customers of 
Australian producers other than BHP who have had no difficulty with supply 
over a number of years should suddenly move away from their Australian 
suppliers because of industrial action at some BHP operations."

The company has consistently refused  and still refuses  to negotiate 
with the union, on the grounds that the company should have the same 
"flexibility" (i.e. individual work agreements) as other employers in this 
field, but the Commission was not impressed by this argument either.

The AIRC judgement noted: "That some customers of BHP may source their coal 
from other suppliers is a potential outcome of the current industrial 
action ... such factors are inherent in the form of bargaining that is now 
central to Australia's industrial relations system", adding significantly 
that: "There is no point to protected industrial action unless it places 
some commercial pressure on the employer."

Elsewhere the news with respect to BHP is both good and bad.

The bad news is that its proposed merger with the South African mining and 
resources giant, Billiton, will certainly result in a conglomeration with a 
hardline commitment to frustrating, excluding or breaking unions which seek 
to represent its employees.

The good news  and it is highly significant news at that  is that BHP 
workers, who are potential employees of the proposed new company, have 
agreed to forge a common strategy in taking on the company.

Representatives of the ACTU and 12 unions from Australia and New Zealand, 
involved in BHP's operations held a summit meeting in Wollongong late last 
week. They agreed to join forces in an effective multi-union federation, in 
order to avoid inefficiencies and divisions within the union movement which 
in the past have benefited the company rather than its employees.

ACTU President Sharan Burrow stated after the Wollongong meeting that: "BHP 
must accept the fundamental right and choice of employees to join, organise 
and be represented by their unions through collective bargaining.

The information shared at the Summit shows that while there are specific 
issues that need to be considered by each sector, there are key common 
interests including job security, community impacts, contracting-out and 
fair treatment by BHP.

"We will follow through on the priorities identified to develop and 
streamline our communication networks, our sharing of information, and our 
mutual co-operation across our workplaces, and internationally", said Ms 
Burrow.

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