By Geoff Spencer
PERTH — Sacked maritime workers from the iron ore port of Port Walcott near Cape Lambert in WA's north-west are in their eighth week of picketing the offices of Robe River Iron Associates and its partner Mitsui Australia.
The workers' lunchtime vigils are the latest stage in a long struggle with the company and its fanatically anti-union, New Right management.
In a series of extraordinary events in early September, Robe liquidated its subsidiary company, Cape Lambert Services, putting 21 tugboat operators out of work.
While the company claims it did this because of an offer by another partner to set up a new operation, the workers say Robe is trying to avoid its industrial relations responsibilities, as it has done systematically since it set out in 1986 to break trade unionism in its operations.
Robe habitually uses the industrial courts when this might be to its advantage and ignores them if a ruling doesn't suit it. Harassment, intimidation, lies and most recently piracy, are all part of its arsenal against the union movement as it works towards its goal of a non-unionised, non-award, contract labour system.
In July 1988, after the dust had settled from the company's frontal attack on unionism in its mining operations, it turned its attention to the seamen, securing a court-ordered exemption from the federal tug operators' award.
When the union then obtained an interim award to cover CLS employees, Robe appealed not only in the Industrial Relations Commission but also the High Court. Meanwhile, it also set other processes in motion.
Last July Robe set up another shelf company, West Tug Management, with two new boats, having given notice the previous day that CLS employees' contracts would expire on September 24, before a permanent award could be handed down to replace the interim one.
Robe refused to allow unionists aboard the new vessels, and sent a union crew to deliver an older tug, the Roebourne, to Fremantle. Once the tug was at sea on September 2, the company informed the Industrial Relations Commission and maritime unions that CLS had begun the process of liquidation on August 28. With the dissolution of the company, legal proceedings for an award to cover its workers lapsed.
Informed of these developments on their arrival in Fremantle, the 10 crew members resolved to remain aboard the Roebourne until they got satisfactory answers regarding their jobs and entitlements.
Robe responded by sending two boatloads of hired thugs to assault and physically remove the crew. Company lawyers then threatened legal action against the crew and the Seamen's Union.
The union responded with a 2000-strong march and a rally at Parliament House. Trades and Labor Council assistant secretary Rob Meecham suggested that the federal government should take action against the company for stepping outside the industrial relations system — as the pilots were alleged to have done in 1989.
Sensing a cheap opportunity to restore its flagging credentials among workers, the WA Labor government condemned Robe River's actions in the parliament, but has done little else. The recent ALP state conference passed a motion urging the federal government to use its export licensing powers to pull the company into line, but federal resources minister Alan Griffiths rejected any such action on the grounds that it would damage Australia's reputation as a reliable supplier.
The recent ACTU Congress and the WA Trades and Labor Council passed motions supporting the maritime workers and condemning the company.
While the new company is operating its tugs with non-union labour, the 21 unionists are confident they can win their jobs back. They continue their vigil every weekday from 12 to 2 p.m. outside Robe River headquarters, 12 St Georges Terrace, Perth, and Mitsui's office at 221 St Georges Terrace. Supporters are welcome.