Miners' ballot supports union
by Rohan Gowland Miners at the NSW Hunter Valley No.1 mine rejected Rio Tinto's non-union agreement in a secret ballot conducted at the end of last month. The result delivers an important blow to the mine company's attempts to de-unionise its operations. In the ballot, which was conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, the Hunter Valley No.1 miners voted two to one against the non-union agreement. The result of the ballot could finally bring an end to the two-year dispute at the mine. The dispute will now be arbitrated by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). Arbitration will end the "protected action" status of the miners' picket. It means that the union can be sued if it takes industrial action now. But arbitration also means that the company will have to abide by the terms of the arbitrated settlement. It will be a compromise, but a compromise that upholds collective bargaining. The secret ballot was held at Rio Tinto's request, but the move backfired on them with an overwhelming majority of miners — 122 to 64 — voting against the company's non-union agreement. Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) Mining and Energy Division General President Tony Maher said the result was "a victory for the principle of collective bargaining through the Union and an enormous setback for Rio Tinto's de-unionisation campaign". "The Hunter Valley No.1 mineworkers have been subjected to a war of attrition by Rio Tinto in an attempt to beat them out of the Union after the initial attempt to bribe them out had failed", said Mr Maher. "Rio Tinto have used every anti-union law the Howard Government armed them with to break the Union. The workers have endured mass sackings and victimisation of union activists. Almost every local union representative was sacked at Hunter Valley by Rio Tinto in December last year", he said. The result is "testament to [the workers'] courage and their lack of trust in Rio Tinto". Gordonstone In another dispute, at the Gordonstone mine in central Queensland, the CFMEU has been banned from attending the Gordonstone picket after the Supreme Court granted an injunction requested by Rio Tinto. Officials from other unions will now run the picket — similar to the peaceful assemblies organised during the MUA dispute. The big court case on whether the unfairly dismissed workers should get preference to re-employment by Rio Tinto is due to be heard this week in the Federal Court on April 6-7. At the beginning of the dispute, in 1997-98, the AIRC ruled that the 312 Gordonstone miners had been unfairly dismissed and should get preference for re-employment. However, in December, 1998, the Full Bench of the AIRC overturned the order to give preference to the unfairly dismissed miners. It did not overturn the decision recognising that they were unfairly dismissed. At the Federal Court case this week the CFMEU will appeal against the overturning of the order to re-employ the sacked workers. Also of importance, is the question of whether Rio Tinto can shirk responsibility to workers who were employed before Rio Tinto bought the mine. If Rio Tinto is let off the hook, then it would mean any company can sack its entire workforce and sell the operation to another friendly company who then employs a new non-union workforce under a non-union agreement or on individual contracts.