The Port Kembla Coal Terminal (PKCT), south of Wollongong, locked out its 58 permanent employees without pay for five days from January 7. The move is part of the company’s ongoing drive to force workers to accept cuts to their wages and conditions.
PKCT has been in negotiations with the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) for a new agreement since 2015, when the previous enterprise agreement expired.
South-West vice president of CFMEU Mining and Energy Bob Timbs said: “This is an outrageous move by PKCT to instigate a lockout which can only serve to worsen a dispute over an enterprise agreement.
“Our members have been trying to negotiate a new enterprise agreement with PKCT and instead of continuing those talks in good faith the company has decided to lock the workforce out for five days.”
The company has been pushing to reduce conditions, including removing existing sick leave provisions and cutting its superannuation payments.
It also wants to scrap consultation and dispute clauses that has limited the speed with which it could cut conditions. This is a way of transitioning from self-managed work teams to units under direct management control, in order to drive speed-ups.
Timbs said he believed the lockout was the first of its kind in the Port Kembla area. PKCT's actions were an "unprecedented attack" on workers he said.
“PKCT has also taken the extraordinary step of applying to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the current enterprise agreement and go back to the award. This is unacceptable to workers who have accepted wage increases over several years based on trade-offs that have provided tangible benefits to the company,” he said.
“PKCT is also attempting to instigate a ‘divide and rule’ approach by seeking to exclude 20% of the workforce from the new agreement. Workers have rejected this move in a vote late last year but, instead of finding a solution, the company and its shareholders have decided on a lockout.”
The union has called on the five coal mining companies that own PKCT — South 32, Glencore, Peabody Energy, Centennial Coal and Wollongong Coal — to intervene.
“We know the coal companies are behind this move and we are calling on all those involved to step back and reflect on how to resolve this dispute rather than make matters worse,” Timbs said.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney said the locked out workers had the support of the whole union movement.
"It's the first type of action by an employer that we've seen in this area, but unfortunately this is a pattern that's happening around the country at the moment, where big strong employers are resorting to tactics that are very unwelcome in our industrial landscape.
“The workers at Port Kembla have the full support of the entire union movement and we will stand with every workforce which is attacked.”
In a display of solidarity, the Illawarra branches of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA); CFMEU Mining and Energy; CFMEU Building and Construction; Australian Workers Union; Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union; Transport Workers Union; Rail Tram and Bus Union; and Electrical Trades Union (ETU), with the assistance of the South Coast Labour Council (SCLC), established the Port Kembla Ports Committee.
More than 200 people protested at a workers assembly outside PKCT on January 11 with speakers including SCLC acting secretary Garry Keane, CFMEU South-West district secretary Lee Webb, MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith and ETU Victorian state secretary Troy Gray.
Webb told the assembly: “The company is using sneaky, underhand tactics to try to terminate the existing agreement and wind back 25 years of hard fought conditions achieved through enterprise bargaining.
“The company needs to negotiate in good faith without manipulation or coercion to achieve an agreement that doesn’t strip their employees working conditions.”
Keane said: “This company is crying reduced export tonnage but much of the reduced coal throughput is a direct result of delays caused by the $280 million infrastructure upgrade going on at the Terminal and by the Board’s decision to impose a tonnage levy to fund that infrastructure.
“PKCT Board is made up of coal mining companies. Yet these are the same companies that are now sending their export coal north and avoiding paying that levy”.
Smith highlighted that it has become a disturbing trend by militant employers to stonewall and manipulate enterprise negotiations in a bid to terminate agreements. “This tactic is becoming increasingly common and unions won’t stand for it,” he said.
“More broadly, the industrial relations system is broken for workers. We need to change the rules to ensure that workers can collectively bargain without unfair restraints that only apply to working people and not big corporations.”
In a statement, the Port Kembla Port Unions Committee said it “condemns the actions of PKCT and pledges our ongoing support for the PKTC CFMEU members in rejecting this attack on their working conditions. We call on the shareholders in PKCT to engage in proper bargaining instead of resorting to lockouts and termination applications.”