BHP mineworkers fight for jobs
by Anna Pha Company officials banging on the door at three in the morning, waking families and ordering striking workers back to the job while holding Federal Court injunctions under their noses and threatening that their very homes were at risk. Intimidatory Gestapo-type scare tactics by the company in the presence of the workers' families. Harassment in the extreme, Rio Tinto style, but this time it was that job crunching exploiter, BHP. The workers are coal miners in the Illawarra in NSW who were taking part in a 24-hour national strike of BHP employees in the coal industry. It turns out that the court injunctions were not for the rank and file workers in any case. They were interlocutory orders, requiring the union and its senior officials to seek a return to work. The penalties for breach of the order are contempt of court charges carrying a maximum $10,000 fine or imprisonment at the judge's pleasure. The 24-hour national strike was in protest against a new low price for export coal set by BHP which would become the benchmark for the industry. BHP is the coal industry's biggest producer and exporter, employing about 25 per cent of the entire industry's workforce. CFMEU Mining and Energy Division General President Tony Maher said that BHP had negotiated a five percent cut in coking coal prices with its Japanese customers in return for an increase in its own market share. This follows last year's disastrous 18 percent reduction in the price of coking coal. "This $3.40 a tonne cut is a disaster for Australia. It sets a new low level that will push marginal mining operations over the edge and trigger a new round of mass retrenchments as BHP and other companies seek to offset the effects of the price cuts through cutting costs. "This means sacking more mineworkers and attacking our wages and conditions." Mr Maher said that since 1996, 6,575 coal mineworkers have been retrenched in NSW and Queensland. This represents a staggering 26 per cent of the entire workforce. "Our members, our families and our communities are paying a devastating price for the Federal Government's deregulation of the coal export industry which allows companies like BHP to engage in an annual war of savage price cutting without any regard for the industry, the workforce or Australia." The Illawarra mineworkers began their 24-hour stoppage on Monday February 7, at 11pm. A mass meeting was scheduled at Bulli at 10am on the Tuesday. BHP obtained a court injunction around about the time the stoppage began, but were too late to stop it commencing. The meeting resoundingly opposed any return to work. There was a great deal of antipathy towards BHP over the company's attack on the unions and its members in the Pilbara in WA, where it is trying to force workers onto non-union individual contracts, as well over the pricing of coal which can be expected to hit the Illawarra mines hard. But when the meeting heard some of the stories of the harassment, anger boiled over, and a 24-hour stoppage specifically over that issue was called. Since then, BHP has continued to inflame the situation, threatening damage claims and contempt of court charges against the union and officials over the two stoppages. Last year the mineworkers delivered BHP productivity gains of between 20 and 30 per cent. BHP has thanked its workforce with harassment and job insecurity. Since BHP imported new management from the US and looked at co-operation with Rio Tinto on iron ore, it has increasingly taken the iron-fist approach to industrial relations. "They are making bad decisions. They made a very bad call in the Pilbara", Mr Maher told The Guardian. "They have ended up with a split workforce [in the Pilbara], half union, half on contracts, an impossible mess to manage. "They have made a bad decision on prices. They have underestimated our reaction to that. They have underestimated the impact of that loss of goodwill between the employees and the company on productivity. "They'll be regretting those decisions for some years to come. "What can be freely given can be taken away", he warned. "What we are looking at now is a campaign of non-cooperation."