Union struggle brings union membership at Kembla Copper
by Janice Hamilton and Marcus Browning Workers at Port Kembla Copper (PKC), in Wollongong on the South Coast of NSW have been head to head with their bosses since the re-opening of the plant in 1999. PKC, known as Southern Copper before its closure in 1995, was re-opened after a brawl between the NSW State Government, the local community and the union movement. Southern Copper was closed due to environmental and financial problems and was taken over by a Japanese-based consortium and renamed PKC with a local Australian management. The CEO is the former head of Woodlawn Mines and the general manager is the former manager of the Mount Isa copper smelter. At one stage he closed Mt Isa operations and laid off all the workers. He was formerly with South African mining giant Anglo-America. NSW Labor Premier, Bob Carr, who likes to regard himself as a "greenie", gave special permission for the plant to re-open with conditions. One was the closure of a local public school because of pollution concerns. The other was that the company would hire the workforce employed before the closure. After much community pressure the school was relocated but the workers were left out in the cold. Only eight of the former workforce became part of the new workforce of 160. PKC refused to employ 38 of the previous workers because of their union and political affiliations or because they had publicly spoken out against the former company. Others had found employment elsewhere or no longer wanted employment with the new company. When operations restarted the workforce was employed on Federal individual contacts (AWAs). However, unions soon organised an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) with similar conditions to those contained in the AWAs. The EBA is now up for renewal before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission. A campaign of rolling strikes by the 160 workers was launched. Issues involved include wages, work conditions, training, holidays and hours of work. "Really dangerous" Conditions are "really dangerous" in terms of workplace health and safety. The legal requirement for sulphur levels (S02) is two parts per million without a facemask and 20 parts per million with a facemask. The PKC workers are in an environment where S02 levels are mostly at 50 to 100 parts per million. The company previously refused to have the proper monitors in place, but have now been forced by the Commission to monitor S02 levels. There is also continuous harassment of workplace delegates or anyone who questions the management. The company rejected every item in the log of claims put forward by the Australian Workers' Union (AWU). In each case the management claimed that "significant cost burdens" would "put our operations at risk" and continually cited the holy grails of "multi-skilling, no demarcation and flexibility". PKC is angling for increased hours, including an arrangement that would force workers to carry out six 12-hour shifts in a row. AWU organiser, Phil Reid told The Guardian that every time the Union goes in to have a meeting with management "they want to waffle on about the philosophy of the agreement" giving the usual motherhood statements about a co-operative workforce, working together with no demarcation, etc. "It's a real battle at the present time", said Mr Reid. "But, it is backfiring on the company because we've gone from one or two people being in the Union when the place re-opened to 90 percent membership." Management vets all prospective employees by asking if they're pro-union or anti-union. None-the-less, once they've gone through their probationary period workers come to the Union. Wollongong has a strong trade union tradition. "They're now picking up employees with non-industrial backgrounds. They're starting to put on a lot of kids from McDonald's and places like that to try and brainwash them. But, it's not working. We've got a good set of delegates, guys who are ready to take the fight up to management", said Mr Reid.