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Issue #1519      21 September 2011

Union revival at Rio’s Pilbara mines

Rank and file Rio Tinto iron ore workers in the Pilbara have decisively voted up the first collective agreement in almost 20 years. This historic revival of collective bargaining is due to the courage and commitment of the CFMEU’s Mining Division and its members. Despite the difficulty posed for many of the rank and file working as fly-in, fly-out, a majority of the workers voted in the ballot with 80 percent of them voting in favour of the historic new collective union agreement. Alex Bukarica, national legal officer of the CFMEU, reports on this historic victory:

Rio Tinto, like the other major Pilbara mining companies, BHP and Fortescue Metals, operates an extensive,privately owned rail network that transports iron ore from its inland mines to its Pilbara coastal ports. The loco drivers employed by Rio Tinto have historically been covered by the FED&FA (now part of the CFMEU), but took a battering when Rio virtually wiped out unionism at its operations in the Pilbara in the early 1990s.

This position began to change in 2008, when a group of rank and file train drivers inspired by the defeat of WorkChoices decided that they wanted to unionise. Led by loco driver Dennis “Sharkey” Jones, the activists began the hard slog of promoting the idea that workers should be able to deal collectively with their employer to have a say over their working lives.

After contacting Western Australian district secretary of the CFMEU, Gary Wood, the Rio Tinto loco drivers found that with the support of a professional union, workers responded well to approaches to unionise. For all the Rio Tinto propaganda regarding “direct relationships” with workers, it became clear that there was a deep well of resentment amongst Rio Tinto’s own employees against management.

As one of the loco drivers put it to me: “The way I see it, Rio Tinto think that because we are on good money that they own us. Well, they might own my time at work, but they don’t own my opinions or who I associate with, or what I do outside of work. The whole company approach is about control of workers. When it comes right down to it, Rio doesn’t actually trust its own workers”.

As the organising effort at Rio Tinto gathered pace and a majority of drivers signed up, the CFMEU approached Rio Tinto to collectively bargain. However, the company refused to even meet with the union for the entire period leading up to the Fair Work Act being introduced in 2009. This response led to the loco drivers staging the first industrial action at Rio Tinto in the Pilbara in nearly 20 years to try to force the company to the bargaining table.

It was only in early 2010 with the union likely to win a “majority support” declaration under the Act that Rio Tinto reluctantly agreed to bargain for a collective agreement. What followed was described by the right-wing Australian newspaper as the union conducting a “particularly canny negotiation”. This negotiating approach led to an in-principle agreement being reached with Rio Tinto that was formally approved by loco drivers on August 14.

The first union agreement in Rio Tinto’s operations since the early 1990s had come into operation prompting this headline in The Australian newspaper: “Union storms the citadel with landmark Rio deal”.

Bargaining gets a further boost

In addition to pursuing unionisation on the ground, the CFMEU also conducted a focused legal strategy that aimed to remove any impediments to collective bargaining. The obvious target in this campaign was a dodgy “non-union” collective agreement that Rio Tinto entered into with 10 new-starter employees that would apply to all workers subsequently engaged by the company. This was how the company intended to continue its WorkChoices style arrangements into the future.

However, the agreement was put together on the highly illogical basis that a business or part of a business could be defined as employees engaged after a particular date. This was done so that existing workers could not vote on the agreement.

The CFMEU took the agreement to the Federal Court, arguing that it was never validly made. Initially, a single judge of the Federal Court dismissed the union application, siding with Rio Tinto. However, confident of their case, the union appealed to a Full Court of the Federal Court consisting of three judges.

On July 25, the Full Court handed down its judgement, finding unanimously in favour of the CFMEU. The dodgy non-union agreement was declared void, and the workers covered by it were free to bargain under the much fairer provisions of the Fair Work Act.

While there is much hard work to be done, the recent breakthroughs at Rio Tinto in the Pilbara present real steps towards reversing the long-term decline of unionism in this critical region of Australia.

Common Cause, August-September 2011, journal of Mining and Energy Division of CFMEU  

Next article – Jeld-Wen lockout continues

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