Port Kembla coal terminal workers keep up struggle for job security

Rolling industrial action has hit Port Kembla as part of an ongoing dispute between local coal terminal management and workers. Strike action began on February 1 as a result of management scaling back conditions during negotiations over a new enterprise agreement.

At any time, up to 15 ships can be spotted sitting on the horizon off Port Kembla. Most of the ships are waiting to access the coal terminal. BHP Billiton operates the terminal on behalf of its owners, which include Xstrata, Peabody Energy, Gujarat NRE and Centennial Coal.

The main sticking point in the negotiations is about increased job security. But the union representing the workers, the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), is also fighting for workplace safety and adequate staffing levels.

On February 21, Pacific National Coal announced that it would sack 108 freight workers without pay. Sixty one of the sacked workers are from the Illawarra and 47 from Lithgow.

Pacific National Coal blamed the terminal workers’ industrial action for the lay-offs. The February 21 Illawarra Mercury reported company director David Irwin saying: “We’re disappointed that as a result of the actions of the CFMEU and its Port Kembla Coal Terminal members, we are unable to continue our coal haulage operations with any level of effectiveness or efficiency and we have little option but to stand down our employees.”

That the company has “little option” but to sack workers is hard to believe given its huge wealth. Pacific National Coal is owned by Asciano, which describes itself as “Australia’s largest national rail freight and ports operator”. In February last year, Asciano reported an annual revenue of $1.6 billion and a net profit of $123.5 million.

The CFMEU members have been reasonable during the dispute. This month they offered to unload 50,000 tonnes of coal from Peabody’s Metropolitan mine; an offer the company accepted.

On February 10, CFMEU district vice president Bob Timbs said in a statement: “The union understands that as a result of the workers’ protected stoppage action coal stockpiles have reached a critical point at Helensburgh, and this could have safety or operational issues for workers there.”

In response to Pacific National Coal’s threat to sack freight workers, the CFMEU called off a 24-hour strike scheduled for February 22. The CFMEU's show of good faith meant the freight workers avoided the sack for now.

But Irwin told the Illawarra Mercury: “The 108 freight workers would be stood down on Sunday if no agreement is reached this week.” Further industrial action is possible as negotiations continue.

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