The Guardian May 22, 2002


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.

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