The Guardian February 17, 1999


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.

Back to index page