The Guardian February 9, 2000


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.

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