Miners fight Rio Tinto
Twenty-two unionists were arrested last week while defending the jobs of sacked mineworkers at the Gordonstone coal mine in central Queensland. The arrests were made as Rio Tinto, the mine's new owners, bussed non-union labour through a picket line at the mine. The non-union scabs are employed under an agreement from which the union was excluded. In a repeat of the Patrick scam, Rio Tinto has set up a $2 shelf company to employ the scab labour. Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) members have maintained a peaceful picket at the site since the illegal sacking of the unionised workforce on October 1, 1997. At the time of these sackings the mine was owned by the giant US mining corporation ARCO. The day after Rio Tinto finalised the purchase of the mine from ARCO last week, it sent in a bus carrying 23 non-union scabs across the picket line. With only about 20 people manning the picket at the time, they were outnumbered by an escort of 80 police and were unable to stop the bus going in. "This is the maritime dispute Mark II", Reg Coates, CFMEU Mining Division General Vice-President told The Guardian. Shortly afterwards he was arrested as he attempted to stop the scab bus coming out of the mine. An emergency call for assistance went out, hundreds of miners responded, converging on the mine to reinforce the picket line. "There's people coming from mines all over Queensland — we've even had people ringing up from Brisbane, from other industries, wanting to send bus loads up", said Mr Coates. When the bus carrying the non-union workers was leaving the mine, a second attempt was made to stop it and it was then that Reg and the other unionists were arrested. CFMEU Mining Division General President Tony Maher, and Queensland state official Doug Bloxom were also among those arrested. They are due to appear in court on March 8, charged with obstructing a public thoroughfare. The next day, when it came to getting the scabs out, the company used the mine's airstrip to fly them over the picket. At the weekend wharfies from the Maritime Union of Australia arrived to support the picket line. The ACTU strongly condemned the arrests. Assistant Secretary, Greg Combet said, "The arrest of coal miners and their union officials because they are trying to regain jobs from which they were illegally sacked over 15 months ago is unacceptable." Union-busting agenda The Gordonstone Mine was opened in 1991, and by 1996 was breaking world production records for an underground coal mine. The workers were congratulated and a statue at the mine declared the workforce as the "best miners in the world". But the profit-hungry ARCO was not satisfied. Encouraged by the election of the Coalition Federal Government in 1996 and the subsequent passing of the Workplace Relations Act in 1997, ARCO decided to deunionise the mine and reduce wages and conditions. After attempts to deunionise its workforce failed, ARCO sacked its entire production and engineering workforce of 312 in October 1997. The company used security guards and dogs to lock out the workers. This was just six months before the same tactics were employed by Patrick against waterside workers. The private guards followed and spied on sacked mineworkers and their families in the town and the company attempted to evict the mineworkers and their families from their rented homes. ARCO kept on a management team of over 100 and commenced recruiting a new workforce. In February 1998, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) found that the 312 miners had been unfairly dismissed as part of "an elaborate strategy" to replace the unionised workforce with non-union workers. The AIRC ordered the company to give preference to its former employees. ARCO refused to reopen the mine on those terms. In July 1998 the company again attempted to recruit a new workforce, and the AIRC again ordered that the former employees should be hired. The mine remained closed. In October ARCO announced that it would sell the mine to Rio Tinto for US$150 million. At the time of the sale other companies were offering $50 million more, but were knocked back. ARCO preferred to hand the mine over to Rio Tinto to carry on its union-busting program. In December Rio Tinto began recruiting in secret for the mine — even before the sale was finalised. A $2 shelf company, Mine Management Pty Ltd, a subsidiary of Pacific Coal which is a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, recruited the non-union labour. Twenty-three specially selected non-union recruits were offered and accepted a non-union agreement that would cover all work at the mine by all employees for a two-year period. The AIRC certified the agreement on February 2, 1999. The AIRC refused requests by the CFMEU and the ACTU to be heard on the agreement. Under the Howard/Reith industrial legislation, the union cannot be heard on the certification of an agreement that has been struck directly between an employer and its employees. Rio Tinto plans to employ up to 200 workers under the non-union certified agreement that the 23 agreed to. No preference will be given to the former Gordonstone workers who were unlawfully dismissed by ARCO. By closing the mine and changing owners, the mining companies hope they have found a means of using the Federal Government's anti-union laws to deunionise this and other mines. This is the first time the mining union or ACTU has come up against this tactic. If successful it could set a precedent for other companies wishing to deunionise their workplaces. The setting up of a shelf company to employ labour creates difficulties for any union as it did in the MUA dispute with Patrick Stevedores. "It leaves us in a position where we have to go and challenge the ratification of the agreement", said Reg Coates. The CFMEU is looking to appeal against the approval of this non-union agreement on the basis that Rio Tinto was not the legal owner of the mine at the time the agreement was ratified. The union is also appealing against the AIRC full bench overturning a previous ruling that the sacked miners had preference of re-employment if the mine re-opened. If the Federal Court accepts the urgency of the case, it could be heard in the next two weeks. Government-employer offensive Comparisons are being made with the maritime dispute and there are similarities. The attack on the MUA revealed strong evidence of a conspiracy between different employer groups and the Federal Government. It was not an isolated dispute but part of the wider plan to deunionise the maritime, mining, meat and construction industries which had been singled out by Howard at the time of the 1996 elections. Some of the tactics used against the MUA were first tried on the miners during the Hunter Valley dispute in NSW. Minister Reith has learnt a few lessons from the MUA dispute and has, so far, publicly distanced himself from involvement in the Gordonstone dispute. The union, however, is aware that meetings with ARCO were held in Reith's office last year when ARCO was in the midst of the dispute. There is other evidence of behind-the-scenes "co-operation". During the Hunter Valley dispute in 1997, Mike Angwin, then a senior Rio Tonto, executive, was brought in to advise the Government on the dispute. Angwin was on the taskforce appointed by Reith that drafted the Government's anti- union legislation. Prior to the Hunter Valley dispute, there was a 15-week-long struggle over individual contracts to replace union coverage at Curragh — owned by ARCO. The union uncovered correspondence between Rio Tinto and ARCO, revealing co-operation between the two companies. Rio Tinto also had a 30 per cent share in ARCO's Curragh mine. The same week that the AIRC intervened to stop the Curragh dispute, ARCO sacked its Gordonstone workforce and Rio Tinto began the Hunter Valley dispute. So, between the two companies, the mining union has been kept in constant dispute, over much the same issues. The arena of battle has been simply shifted around at the whim of the two mining corporations. The current dispute at Gordonstone, like the previous mining disputes and the MUA dispute, is part of a much bigger struggle against employers and a government determined to destroy and remove industrial unions from Australian workplaces. Messages of support can be sent to: Gordonstone Miners, c/o CFMEU Emerald Office, fax (07) 4982 3343; ph (07) 4982 2922.