By Jonathan Strauss
PERTH — A two-week strike by 2200 Pilbara mineworkers is likely to spread to other workplaces of Hamersley Iron parent company CRA. The strike, against the employment of a non-unionist at the Tom Price mine, has cost the company around $40 million so far, and has led to threats of lawsuits against union officials.
The strike began on June 17 after a mineworker was found not to be a union member. It spread quickly to other Hamersley sites at Dampier and Paraburdoo. The five powerful unions in the dispute had believed the company was still honouring a 1982 agreement that Hamersley would be a closed shop.
Hamersley denies this, though as late as last October workers received letters from the company asking them to show their union tickets. The company refuses to dismiss the non-unionist or accept any other option proposed by the unions at a June 24 Industrial Relations Commission meeting. On June 26, Hamersley proposed that the worker be deemed a conscientious objector, and required to pay the equivalent of his dues to charity.
Some unionists see the company's action as an APPM-style attempt to test union strength with a view to an assault on wages and conditions. Pilbara iron ore companies have been hit by a slump in the Japanese steel industry.
Other WA employers are also challenging closed shop agreements. A recent report by construction industry companies complained that preference to unionists clauses were being used to force them to employ union activists, including some believed in union circles to be blacklisted, on city building sites. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry is pressing the government to enforce Section 96 of the Industrial Relations Act, passed in 1982. The section overrides preference clauses, and contains provisions for fining unions and individuals.
Hamersley is also seeking to exploit this legislation, but the workers have defied an IRC return to work order and established picket lines in opposition to a small number of strikebreakers. At the Tom Price mine, where the company is attempting to bus in strikebreakers, the picket has grown to 400-strong, about half the work force. Strikebreakers number just 14, one already having joined the picket. Workers' families and friends have begun to organise support, and a community meeting voted almost unanimously to back the strike.
Picketers say any perceived weakness on the part of the unions could lead to another Robe River-style defeat. Union officials say doing away with the preference clauses would open the way to freeloading, weaken the unions and place wages and conditions in jeopardy.
The WA Labor government has refused to take either side >ALP state executive has supported the strike. The Liberal Party has called on the government to impose fines under Section 96, and the June 23 West Australian condemned the strike and suggested that Hamersley press the unions for elimination of the closed shop.