The Guardian April 7, 1999

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 

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".


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 

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.

Back to index page