Unionists debate Pilbara dispute


By James Vassilopoulos

CANBERRA — Supporters of workers' rights discussed the implications of BHP's attempt to force their Pilbara work force into individual contracts at a Green Left Weekly forum here on February 16.

Trevor Zeltner, the assistant secretary of the ACT branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, told the meeting that BHP had lied about the numbers of workers at its Mount Newman mine who had signed individual contracts.

The company's figure of 50% includes white-collar workers who were on individual contracts before the dispute erupted, he said. Only 30% of the blue-collar workforce are on individual contracts and many want to go back to a collective agreement.

Zeltner believes that new ACTU secretary Greg Combet has a different approach to deal-making compared to his predecessor, "Blinky" Bill Kelty. He also claimed that Labor spokesperson on industrial relations Arch Beavis has made a confidential pledge to unionists to repeal the Workplace Relations Act.

Democratic Socialist Party activist Andrew Hall told the forum that the Pilbara dispute "will have an impact in wages and conditions of workers all over Australia".

Hall said that putting the interests of ALP governments ahead of the interests of workers, as many unions have done, is a recipe for disaster. If the ALP was a genuine workers' party, it would publicly promise to ban all individual contracts and repeal the Workplace Relations Act.

The ACTU's willingness to trade-off major conditions in the Pilbara as long as a collective agreement is signed shows that not much has changed under Combet, said Hall.

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