BHP steelworkers in second strike

May 21, 1997

By Geoff Payne

NEWCASTLE — Thousands of BHP steelworkers around the country went on strike for the second time on May 15, to answer the Newcastle plant's manager, Bob Kirkby's, challenge that one 24-hour strike would not change BHP's mind.

Kirkby made the challenge after the initial strike at Newcastle the previous week. Both strikes were organised by the combined steelworkers unions in response to BHP's decision to sack thousands of employees in Newcastle, Sydney and Geelong by the end of 1999.

The solidarity action by the non-targeted steelworkers was warmly received at a rally of 200 workers outside the Newcastle works administration building on the morning of the strike. Such support will indicate to BHP that its offer of "job security" to the non-target sites has not worked.

Also present at the rally were wharfies from the BHP wharf, who had decided to strike for 24 hours as well. Other on-site contractors also stopped for the day.

The rally was addressed by ACTU president Jennie George, who pledged support for as long as it was required. The precise nature of such "support" is not clear.

ACTU secretary Bill Kelty claimed that the union movement would not allow this job reduction to proceed. The ACTU executive had met for the previous two days in Newcastle, and we were expecting an announcement at the rally as to the next round of action against BHP.

We have heard this sort of talk from the ACTU before, but what is needed is some action.

Ten years ago there were 12,000 workers at BHP, and we were told that if we worked hard, we would be looked after. The union movement supported this position, backed up by the federal ALP government's steel plan, which involved an $800 million subsidy for "the Big Australian".

According to shadow industry minister Simon Crean, this plan "worked" in 1983 and that's what we need now. In reality, 10 years later, we have worked harder, BHP has made record profits, and thousands have lost their jobs.

It is no use crying "betrayal" or blaming BHP management's incompetence. Kirkby said, "It's all about profits". BHP is merely looking after its own interests, as we should expect it to do. It is up to us and our unions to look after ours.

BHP can be forced into serious negotiations if we hit it where it hurts. Anyone who thinks that Newcastle workers are being sacrificed to save jobs elsewhere is fooling themselves. They told us the same thing — that if we tightened our belts we would be all right, and now we are all facing the axe.

Obviously, the steel industry unions need to be in the front line. But it needs to be broader; other unions and community groups would have to come on board, perhaps with a series of stoppages in the key sectors: wharves, coal, oil. If the momentum is there, perhaps we could look at their overseas operations as well.

Ultimately, if the "Big Australian" is going to be forced to serve our interests, then instead of handing it more subsidies, we should argue that the Australian taxpayer has given it enough money already and we should simply take it over and run it ourselves.

The local unions are planning a community rally of all opponents of the closure of the steel making sections of the plant on May 29 at Dangar Park at 12.30pm. Steelworkers will strike for two hours to attend this rally.

While this is a step, much more serious pressure on BHP needs to be applied — and soon.
[Geoff Payne is a rigger in the Australian Workers' Union at the Newcastle steelworks.]

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