BHP still reeling from IRC Pilbara decision
by Peter Mac Mining and metals giant BHP is down — but not out — after the recent court decision regarding the company's actions in the Pilbara iron ore dispute, during which it tried to deunionise its workforce and bar unions from negotiations over wages and conditions. The unions argued that BHP had breached the Workplace Relations Act in attempting to persuade employees to sign individual employment contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements) with the Company. BHP is believed to have offered carrots of up to $60,000 to lure workers out of collective union agreements. After a court hearing involving the ACTU and a number of unions, the Federal Court granted an interim injuction restraining the Company from attempting to gain more individual contracts. BHP has now indicated, albeit with the greatest reluctance, that it is prepared to consider negotiating a collective agreement with the unions. A meeting of workers at Mount Newman iron ore mine last week expressed their thanks to the ACTU and workers from around the nation, including other BHP workers, who had offered them support. Throughout the dispute BHP had refused to negotiate with the unions, accusing them of unwillingness to accept changes in the industry — but until now refusing to say which changes it was referring to. According to the Australian Workers' Union (AWU), the individual contracts being offered did not specify any such changes. Nevertheless, it became clear during the course of the dispute that BHP has its sights fixed on altering work practices to correspond to those at the mines of its competitor Rio Tinto, where employees are more harshly exploited. This would probably have taken place after the elimination of union involvement and the expiry of the present round of individual contracts in the Pilbara. Part of the workforce would then have been removed by the simple expedient of not renewing their contracts. Their workload would have been distributed to the remaining employees, who would have been forced to accept this as a precondition for renewal of their contracts. WA Branch Secretary of the AWU, Tim Daly, said that the company's tactics really made him wonder about the sincerity of BHP in regard to future discussions with its employees. And well he might wonder! Despite their tentative moves to accept discussions, BHP has appealed against the Court decision, and the appeal is expected to be heard within a fortnight. Nevertheless, for their part the Pilbara workers have welcomed BHP's new negotiating position. They have also asked their union leadership to negotiate with the company, but with several preconditions. These include the right to union membership and representation, equal pay and conditions for all workers, and an end to discrimination against those wishing to work under collective agreements. The Court's decision was celebrated by all the Pilbara workers. A large number of those who had signed individual contracts before and during the dispute have approached the AWU Port Hedland branch. They say that they signed the agreements because they believed that it was the only way they could gain wage increases in the changed industrial climate. They have now asked to be covered by a collective agreement negotiated by the union. With regard to future discussions, the Pilbara workers have recognised the importance of the economic viability of the iron ore industry, but have also stipulated that any agreement must include provisions for workplace security. And they have warned the Company that if it refuses to negotiate, further industrial action will follow.