By Liam Mitchell
WOLLONGONG — The decision by mining giant CRA to close its Illawarra subsidiary Southern Copper Ltd (SCL) has raised questions about the motives. Organisers in the Australian Workers Union-Federation of Industrial Manufacturing and Engineering Employees (AWU-FIMEE) have expressed concern that this is an attempt to get rid of the union from the Port Kembla plant.
SCL has announced that it will cease operations in January, because it is unable to find capital to carry out an environmental upgrade and to expand its plant. This would cost the area up to 1000 jobs, 400 from the smelter and up to 600 from related industries.
When CRA bought the old Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Company (ER&S) during the 1980s, it injected $155 million to upgrade the plant and bring in new technologies. Since 1989, it has put in $210 million. A number of teething problems with the new technology and a reactor explosion in 1991 have resulted in SCL posting major losses every year since 1989. CRA has refused to pay the $230 million needed for upgrading.
After the plant closes, it would be put under a care and maintenance program for the next two years, in readiness for recommissioning or sale. However, AWU-FIMEE Port Kembla branch assistant secretary Andy Gillespie claims that the plant is likely to reopen within those two years.
Gillespie said that chemicals being used in the plant would corrode equipment. This would reduce to only a few months the time that the plant could be kept operational without a heavy start-up bill.
Fears that CRA will use the closure to restructure its operations at SCL appear well founded. CRA and its subsidiaries have been actively pursuing anti-union policies around the country, from mines in the Pilbara and Weipa to the Comalco aluminium smelter at Bell Bay in Tasmania.
Although it lost a decision on Bell Bay in the Industrial Relations Commission recently, CRA has been successful in many of these attempts to crush workplace unions, even in some areas with a previous militant history.
If the company were to close and then reopen in the near future, it might then be able to rehire workers in a climate of mass unemployment and pressure them into accepting individual contracts.
"I firmly believe that there is a hidden agenda for Southern Copper ... It is still hard to believe that a company like CRA can take over a run-down operation like ER&S, which was losing no more than $1 or $2 million a year, and begin to lose tens of million of dollars annually in spite of new technology, a drastically reduced workplace, and world prices for refined copper double that of ten years ago", Gillespie said.