Hunter Valley miners vote against striking

August 20, 1997

By James Vassilopoulos

On August 13, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) recommended to the Hunter Valley miners to continue negotiations and not resume their strike, following a recommendation by Justice Alan Boulton of the Industrial Relations Commission.

The union welcomed Boulton's recommendations that negotiations continue for a further 21 days, that harassment at the mine end and that management staff not do production work. Previously, it seemed likely that the miners would again strike after the CFMEU issued the 72 hours' notice needed to conduct a legal strike.

Mike Kelly, CFMEU northern districts vice-president, told Green Left Weekly that 430 CFMEU members attended the August 13 mass meeting and "overwhelmingly endorsed Boulton's recommendation; seven people voted against it". Negotiations with Rio Tinto will begin again on August 22.

Kelly described the negotiations with Rio Tinto as "frustrating, slow and painstaking" but said that some progress was being made. In a CFMEU media release on August 12, senior vice-president Tony Maher said, "Of the 36 contentious issues identified in negotiations, 20 have been settled or are very close to settlement".

Kelly told Green Left, "It would be exaggerating to say we have finalised the 20 issues, but certainly we have made some progress". He added that about 36 clauses would need to be included in a certified agreement.

According to Maher, the "union has modified its position on the entire 20 issues, but so far Rio Tinto has not modified its position on a single issue".

Asked if the issues of seniority, union control of hiring and the allocation of overtime, and maintaining penalty rates were non-negotiable, Kelly replied, "We have taken an attitude that we are prepared to discuss all issues".

He said that so far they had worked through contract of employment, the scope and application of the agreement and overtime. "We are still working through the use of contractors, annual leave, sick leave, payment of wages, long-service leave and recruitment issues."

He added that Rio Tinto's position has not varied a great deal, and that it is continuing to take a "very hard line".

The bottom line, according to Kelly, is that "we are not about to surrender the protection that the award currently provides, and we will be expecting to maintain very important clauses like retrenchment clauses. We will be taking a hard line on these issues."

Rio Tinto is aiming to abolish seniority and union control of hiring and firing, overtime allocation, shifts and rosters; introduce contractors, part-time and temporary workers; and reduce night shift penalty rates to 25%.

Kelly told Green Left Weekly that the union was "not enthusiastic about spreading the dispute, so strategically we worked hard to keep it in house. This is because that is where we can do the most damage to Rio Tinto and maintain the support from our members at other mine sites."

He said that Rio Tinto has done everything to "blow it up into a major confrontation". It has obtained orders to have train drivers summarily dismissed and has put pressure on maritime workers at Port Waratah. "We have succeeded in maintaining the dispute as a one-mine dispute, and that is the way we will keep it", he said.

Asked if this strategy and staying at work wouldn't undermine the workers' bargaining position, Kelly replied that Hunter Valley workers are the only workers protected by the legislation to strike. Other members at other mines in NSW and Queensland are covered by their own certified agreements which don't allow them to take protected industrial action.

Kelly also pointed out, "In this day and age it is very difficult to run a lengthy dispute without financial assistance. Therefore we need our people at work at other mines so they can provide that very necessary financial assistance to our people and their families.

"We have quite a good relationship with other employers, and if we escalated the dispute we would be fighting on a much broader front, which raises some concerns for us. We do not think that is the smartest way to fight it."

Can unions get around secondary boycott provisions, which prevent workers from supporting other workers with industrial action? People have been examining the legislation for loopholes, Kelly said.

"There does not appear to be any clear cut means of allowing secondary boycotts. I think it depends on the nature of the dispute and the nature of the circumstances we find ourselves in. There may come a time — despite the legislation — when we can take action which involves a hell of a lot of people, more than just one mine site.

"We have done it in the past, when we believed the situation was dire enough that it required it. We always maintain that position as a last resort if necessary", explained Kelly.

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