Miners fighting for justice
by Rohan Gowland The Federal Government is still very evasive on the question of protecting workers' entitlements, even though it is under increasing public pressure to ensure that the Oakdale miners receive their entitlements. Oakdale miners have been seeking justice since the mine announced in June that it was bankrupt, was closing and that there was no money left to pay $6.3 million in entitlements that the workers had accrued after many years, for some most of their lives, working for the mine. Oakdale has brought to the fore the issue of what happens to workers' accrued entitlements when a company goes bust. The main union demand has been for a national fund to be established so that employers will pay entitlements into this fund and the entitlements will be protected in the event of a company's insolvency. The Government has been forced to agree to this move, the details of which are yet to be decided and could produce some differences. The fact that there has been some progress towards a national fund to protect the entitlements of all Australian workers in the future is a very positive development and should be supported, however, it could take anything up to a year for the fund to be set up. In the meantime there still remains the immediate issue of justice for the Oakdale miners. Seeking to address the immediate issue, officials of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) met with the Government early last week and proposed two practical solutions that could be implemented immediately for the Oakdale miners. The Government, however, dismissed both proposals and only offered a paltry $200,000 to go towards counselling and re-training. The Government said that when the national fund is set up it could be paid to the Oakdale miners retrospectively. But why not do something now? The Oakdale miners have lost their jobs and have been robbed of tens of thousands of dollars each that should have helped them and their families through the tough times of unemployment or retirement. The CFMEU's General President, Mining and Energy Division, Tony Maher, said last week, "The time has come for the Federal Government to resolve the Oakdale scandal. "Our union will not allow decent hard-working miners to be robbed of their money nor will we accept that their families should be made to suffer any longer." Miners in NSW and Queensland took a snap 24-hour strike from midnight last Thursday in response to what they called the Government's "arrogant" dismissal of the Oakdale issue and its stubborn refusal to come to a solution. The first option the union put to the Government during the meeting in Canberra last week was for a one-off 10-cent levy on coal production to create an Emergency Fund for the coal industry to pay the Oakdale miners. The CFMEU said this represents a paltry 0.2 per cent of the average price received last year for a tonne of exported coal. This proposal has already been endorsed by the Federal Labor Party and the Australian Democrats. Tony Maher said that the one-off 10-cent levy is "no more than a spit in the ocean" for coal companies. "Coal is Australia's top export earning industry, bringing in some $10 billion a year", he said. The second option was to pay the Oakdale miners from the coal industry's $200 million Long Service Leave Fund. The union said this would be "the simplest option for the Government". "This proposal would put no pressure whatsoever on the industry or the taxpayer. It simply requires an amendment by Federal Parliament to the industry's Long Service Leave Act", said Mr Maher. The Democrats support making the necessary amendments to the Act. Democrats Senator Andrew Murray said, "I have written to the Government signalling that the Democrats would be prepared to support such limited legislative change as a matter of priority ... "This legislative solution could provide a reasonable settlement of the unfortunate Oakdale situation while discussions proceed on setting up an appropriate national fund", said Senator Murray. The miners and their union will continue to fight for justice for the Oakdale miners as well as a national fund to protect all workers' entitlements in the future. Court frustrates Gordonstone miners The fight continues for Queensland's Gordonstone miners to be re-employed, it is 18 months since they won Australia's biggest unfair dismissal case. Industrial Relations Commissioner Hodder ruled in February, 1998, that when the mine reopened the illegally sacked miners should get preference of re- employment. That decision was later overturned by a majority of the Full Bench of the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). In overturning the Hodder decision, the IRC Full Bench made a legal mistake. The union argued that the Hodder decision was not overturned because it was legally or technically wrong, but simply because they had a different opinion on the matter to that of Commissioner Hodder and in overturning Hodder's decision they were actually making a decision of their own on the same matter after a perfectly legal one had already been made. In June this year, the Full Bench of the Federal Court found that the decision of the Full Bench of the IRC was wrong. It ruled that the IRC had "erred in law", but then conceded that under the Workplace Relations Act, the Federal Court did not have the power to correct the mistake — the IRC must do that. However the IRC has decided to live with its mistake, rather than see justice done. On August 2, 1999, the Full Bench of the IRC decided not to correct its wrong decision, saying that to do so "would be against the public interest". The union (CFMEU) said this is a staggering claim. "How can it be against the public interest to right a wrong?", said the union. The union said that by refusing to correct its mistake the IRC has "allowed Rio Tinto [and ARCO] to achieve at Gordonstone what Chris Corrigan failed to do in the MUA dispute — replace a decent unionised workforce with scabs employed by a $1 shelf company!". Up to this point the union had been pursuing a retrospective decision to have the miners who were sacked on October 1, 1997, re-employed. In the light of the IRC's refusal to reverse its incorrect ruling, the union then decided to seek in the Commission that the sacked miners be given preference of employment from now on. This move has just been blocked by the employers taking Supreme Court action and the Supreme Court has granted an interim injuction against the union taking up the matter in the IRC until the Supreme Court deals with the matter in the next couple of weeks. The employers argued to the Supreme Court that as part of the agreement that saw workers get paid their redundancy, they are not allowed to take any further action against the employer. The union is arguing that this is not action about the workers getting illegally sacked. It is now a separate issue about them getting employment in the future.