Chain Valley mine closes:
Mineworkers stand up to multi-national
Striking mineworkers at Chain Valley, NSW Central Coast, have been picketing the coal mine for the past 13 weeks. Last week the company, COAL (Coal Operations Australia Ltd), closed the mine. The picket began after the company put a "take it or leave it" offer for a new enterprise agreement that would have turned wages and conditions on their head and shut out the union. The company demanded the abolition of seniority provisions; all employees to be paid the same, irrespective of skill-level, resulting in a wage cut for workers; the introduction of 12.5-hour shifts; no restriction on the company's use of casual and contract labour; and a ban on union meetings on site. CFMEU Mining Division Northern District Vice-President Peter Murray said that the union continued to seek negotiations with the company but each time the company's demands became more outrageous. "They presented us with an ultimatum, to accept the shocking new terms of their proposal or they would close the mine", said Mr Murray. On January 18, the 42 CFMEU members were given four-weeks' notice. The dispute has been growing since April, 1994, when the company rejected the workers' claims for a new certified agreement. While a two-year interim agreement was agreed to, the company, buoyed by the election of a conservative government, still refused to negotiate a certified agreement. The company kept stalling until the Federal Government's Award-stripping process came into effect in July 1998. After the coal award was stripped, the company served the workers a list of demands, including a number of very sensitive issues on contractors, casual labour, total flexibility of all employees including staff, no provision for seniority rights and a ban on union meetings on site. Mr Murray said, "No alternative was left other than protected industrial action, which we applied for". The workers went on an indefinite strike as of November 19, 1998. After the union had applied for the protected action, the company tried to provoke the men to walk out, and thereby lose their rights to protected action, by instructing a worker to operate a bolting rig on his own without following proper safety procedures. When he refused he was sent home on two consecutive days. The IRC refused the company's requests to intervene, and in December the company was forced back to the negotiating table. Once again, the company put up the same list of demands. Apart from those already mentioned, it included: a dispute procedure that provided for no industrial action, but with the ability for the company to stand down employees; open, unrestricted selection of new employees with all new employees given a six-month trial period; no crew sizes or safe allocation of manning; sick leave paid out six monthly in advance. No bonus to apply; performance review for future retrenchments; unfettered right to select and use casuals to perform all and any tasks; and no minimum overtime blocks — work on RDOs. The picketing workers again rejected this offer. The company's next offer included all the previous demands plus the right to have employees work 12.5-hour shifts on one week's notice. At a subsequent meeting with the union, the company again put forward the same demands, and threatened to close the mine if the union did not agree. It is evident from the outset that the company was not prepared to negotiate or compromise as it stubbornly pursued its aim of de-unionising the mine. It is possible the company may be thinking about "doing a Gordonstone" — selling the mine to a new owner and/or employing non-union labour under a new non-union certified agreement. Mr Murray said, "These 42 members stood their ground and took on a multi- national company with the knowledge that their jobs were at risk ... "They were not prepared to give away working conditions that could have flowed on to the underground industry and should be proud of that fact, and should be remembered by others who will be faced with similar attacks by these types of operators."