By Bernie Brian
WOLLONGONG — In a major victory for South Coast unionists, BHP has backed down on its plans to sack 1100 striking steelworkers and agreed to resume negotiations regarding use of contractors at its Port Kembla sheet and coil division.
BHP's capitulation follows a week-long strike of the Port Kembla steel industry and a month-long, 24 hour a day picket line at sheet and coil to stop contractors entering the plant.
The dispute began in June, when sheet and coil workers stuck for eight days over the company's plans to transfer permanent day workers to new duties and have their old jobs performed by contractors.
Following that strike, national negotiations began to seek alternatives to company plans to use contractors. A 15-point cost cutting proposal from the unions was rejected by the company.
Meanwhile, the company was secretly preparing to award contracts. Combined South Coast delegates met and placed bans on the use of contractors and threatened to involve the whole steel industry in industrial action.
In late September the unions were told that contractors would replace permanent day workers on October 7 and that workers had 14 days to accept transfer to other parts of the plant or be dismissed.
Despite being ordered not to by a state industrial commissioner, workers established a picket line outside sheet and coil on October 5. During October BHP threatened to sue picketers and union officials and tried unsuccessfully to insert stand down clauses into the steel award.
On October 30, sheet and coil workers walked off over the company's use of a contractor to repair a damaged rail line. The next day the rest of the steel industry struck for 24 hours. Work again stopped at sheet and coil on November 2 after two locomotive workers were suspended. The steel industry again struck in support on November 4 for four days.
The company issued a letter threatening 1100 sheet and coil workers with dismissal if they didn't return to work by midday November 8. The workers would also be expected to sign a statement agreeing to work with contractors and not to take further industrial action over contractors working in disputed areas.
The company had foremen telephone and visit workers' homes in order to intimidate them into breaking picket lines. Workers at another BHP plant, stainless products, also received letters urging them to break the strike, and they immediately set up picket lines at the plant.
A further mass meeting of 4000 steelworkers on November 7 decided to extend the strike indefinitely over BHP's refusal to accept a union peace proposal: a resumption of work and removal of picket lines if the company removed dismissal notices, contractors were not allowed to enter the plant and negotiations with an independent arbiter began immediately.
The unions were also incensed at being denied the right to present their case to the Industrial Commission by deputy president McMahon (a former president of the NSW Labour Council), who ordered a return to work.
At that mass meeting, Neil Marshall from the Metal and Engineering Workers Union (MEWU) said that if BHP won this dispute "the majority of people within BHP will become contract labour where they can dictate your rates and you won't be able to come together in a collective position to fight BHP". Marshall drew the links with Greiner's Industrial Relations Bill, due to come into effect on January 1, and said that its aim is similar — "to get small groups of people together to sell off their rights".
South Coast Labour Council secretary Paul Matters, in urging an indefinite strike, said that if sheet and coil workers signed the company letter, they would "hand over the last thing you have, which is the right to take the decision to withdraw your labour", and it would "break the trade union movement".
Matters told the meeting that other attempts to introduce contractors elsewhere in the steel industry had been defeated by threatening district-wide stoppages. In April, 110 Liquor Trades Union members, who had been sacked for taking industrial action, were reinstated. In August, writs of $1.5 million against union officials and coal testers at the coal loader were withdrawn.
BHP began gradually to close down its blast furnaces and coke ovens. However, soon after midday on November 8, the company deadline for a return to work, 150 workers who had come to strengthen the picket line were told that the company had accepted a recommendation from Justice Bauer which was essentially the same peace proposal offered by unions the day before and rejected by management.
MEWU organiser Steve Quinn told a combined delegates meeting that afternoon that "the sight of such a tremendous gathering of people at that picket line" had ensured the defeat of the company.
Graham Roberts, branch secretary of the Federation of Industrial Manufacturing and Engineering Employees (FIMEE), told Green Left that this victory "re-establishes the principle that workers really have got the power to change decisions if they take appropriate action ... it's a lesson for all workers in Australia when confronted with the same issue."
FIMEE delegate Bill Beaumont, who was singled out for victimisation during the course of the dispute, said it was "very hard, very trying, but the men have really stuck together".
On Saturday, November 9, a mass meeting of steelworkers, in the light of the company's acceptance of the union proposal, voted to return to work. However, they also decided to reconvene combined delegates meetings if workers were issued with dismissal notices in the future.
They were under no illusion that this was the end of the matter. One steelworker in discussion called it round 1. Paul Matters told the meeting that "one thing reaffirmed here was a commitment from yourself and the combined trade union movement that if other workers found themselves in the same situation ... they will be supported, and that's a lesson that won't be lost on them or their employers".
Already BHP has withdrawn similar proposals for use of contractors at its plant at Westernport in Victoria. The mass meeting also passed a resolution supporting meat packers fighting the use of contractors at Camperdown, also in Victoria. n