Coalminers strike for workers' entitlements
By Jonathan Singer
Coalminers across Australia struck on August 13. The miners, all members of the mining division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, were protesting government inaction over the loss of $6.3 million in accrued entitlements by 125 workers at the Oakdale Colliery when the mine owner went bust.
The demand for industrial action came from the members, who were angry because meetings between government ministers and the union had produced no results.
The strike proceeded under the threat of legal action for damages by the mining companies. Court orders directed the miners back to work, but only a small number returned during the day.
Tony Maher, president of the CFMEU mining division, said the strike "is a straightforward political protest which is morally justified in view of the treatment meted out to us by the government".
Government ministers complained about mining company losses due to the strike, but did not propose to act on the workers' losses. The union is proposing that the Oakdale miners be paid what they are owed from an industry fund already set up to guarantee miners' long-service leave. The levy being paid by the coal companies until 2003 would need to continue only for a further six weeks to cover the payout.
The government, however, is considering the recommendation of Peter McLaughlin, former head of the Business Council of Australia, to abolish the fund. This would mean no coalminer would have long-service leave guaranteed.
The government is considering only legal changes — preventing company restructures that put workers into bankrupt enterprises and, perhaps, giving workers priority in receiving insolvent companies' remaining funds — to ensure that workers do not lose their entitlements due to company insolvency.
These legal changes won't help workers for a company that just goes broke, nor would they help the 3000 workers who the ACTU estimates have lost $30 million in entitlements in recent years.