MIM attacks union, locks out miners
By Jim McIlroy
BRISBANE — The deepening confrontation between Mt Isa mineworkers and mining giant MIM Holdings Ltd moved toward a crisis as the company locked out its entire work force on the morning of May 12.
As MIM tightened security around the huge copper-lead-zinc Mt Isa mine, coalminers at three other MIM-owned sites — Newlands, Collinsville and Oaky Creek — walked out in support of their fellow unionists. Workers at the Abbott Point coal port near Bowen struck as well.
According to Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union mining section state secretary Andrew Vickers, "The company has focussed its attack, saying it won't negotiate with the CFMEU. That's a declaration of war by the company on this union.
"As far as the company is concerned, the lock-out will only end when the CFMEU is gone [from Mt Isa].
"But our people have been prepared. The spirit and morale of the workers there is extremely high, and they're deeply appreciative of the support that's coming in from around the country.
"Our members, the metal workers and the CEPU are all out at MIM's other mines in Queensland."
In the May 15 Coal Industry Tribunal to be held in Sydney, MIM will move for a ruling which orders the coal-miners back to work. Vickers said: "We'll fight them over this. We took a decision at our national convention to put our officials in a position where they could retaliate in response to MIM's attacks.
"We're waiting to see what the company does next. We know they want more talks, but no negotiations. That's not the spirit in which the enterprise bargaining was supposed to take place."
Meanwhile, Mt Isa mineworkers have maintained their 24-hour picket line at the Mica Creek power station, less than 10 kilometres from the mine site.
The power station provides electricity not only for the Mt Isa mine, but for the city and the town of Cloncurry.
The pickets have established a tent blockade around the power station, cutting power to the mine. "While we hold the station there is a kind of balance", Combined Union Disputes Committee (CUDC) chair Steve Hardwick commented on May 11.
Fires ring the site, as teams of 20 miners and their families staff the picket lines at the main entrance and at five other access points.
Police have patrolled the site and reportedly videotaped workers at the blockade. But so far, they have not attempted to break the picket line.
Queensland Police Union secretary Bob Brummel declared earlier, on May 9, that the union would not allow officers to be used as "storm troopers" against striking Mt Isa miners.
The era of employers expecting governments to call in police to arrest workers exercising their industrial rights was over, Brummel said.
The present crisis goes back to 1993 when Mt Isa workers reluctantly agreed to forego traditional conditions, in particular an annual family airfare to Brisbane as recompense for the isolation of the town, to assist MIM recover from a financial slump — with the firm understanding these conditions would be restored later.
Then, last year, the company obtained a ruling from the state Industrial Commission which gave the Australian Workers Union and the metalworkers' union sole coverage in the mine, excluding the three other major unions involved, in particular the CFMEU.
This ruling caused a storm of protest among Mt Isa workers, and a recent appeal ruling on May 8, upholding the right of workers at the mine to retain membership of the other three unions, has led to demands that these unions be included in negotiations with the company.
Finally, in February this year, a historic mass meeting of some 2000 workers overwhelmingly rejected an agency bargaining agreement with MIM proposed by leaders of the AWU and the metalworkers' union.
The deal involved pay rises of some 10% spread over two years, and an $800 annual remote area allowance, in lieu of the previous airfare provision.
Workers angrily rejected the plan, saying the $800 as quite inadequate for a family.
Hardwick says management doesn't realise that Isa workers maintain ownership of these benefits.
"It is like the company stole our wallets and is now handing them back after they've taken a handful of money out and asking us to be grateful."
He says the company is grossly underestimating the workers' determination on this issue.
Behind MIM's intransigence is a serious financial crisis. In the face of falling profitability, the company initiated a $100 million rationalisation program over several years, which left the mine badly organised and under-capitalised.
The new MIM general manager Nick Stump, formerly of the infamous anti-union CRA company, is widely regarded as being behind the latest escalation of hostilities at Mt Isa.
The dispute has badly affected output at the mine, which has already lost some $176 million this financial year.
Nevertheless, MIM seems intent on holding the line on its offer to the work force, and aims to break the militancy of the unions at Mt Isa as an investment in the future.
The stakes in this dispute are very high. It is clearly the biggest industrial confrontation in Queensland since the SEQEB battle of 1985-86.
If the conflict spreads nationwide, it could be a turning point in the current climate of union quiescence under the stifling effects of the ALP-ACTU Accord.
Rumours have circulated around the Mica Creek picket lines that MIM plans to replace unionists with non-union, contract labor. Any such move could provoke an all-out, national industrial war.
State Labor government ministers are desperately urging calm, with local MLA and minerals and energy minister Tony McGrady offering to mediate. His offer has been accepted by the unions, but, to date, rejected by the company.
The Mt Isa workers remain united and strong, and determined to defend their rights and conditions. As AWU organiser and CUDC co-chair Roy Harris told Green Left Weekly, "We believe our cause is just, and we are struggling to achieve our demands."