Union's long battle with Hamersley Iron



Union's long battle with Hamersley Iron

By Anthony Benbow

Reading James Vassilopolous' article on the disgusting practices of Rio Tinto and its allies (GLW #300), I was struck by a passage dealing with the company's activity in WA's Pilbara, specifically the Robe River dispute in the 1980s. To be precise, Robe River was the handiwork of another (just as ruthless) company, Peko-Wallsend.

Robe River certainly provided a useful example when Rio Tinto subsidiary Hamersley Iron wanted to get rid of unions at its Mt Tom Price/Dampier operation in the early 1990s. In June-July 1992, the company engineered a dispute by hiring a "non-unionist".

The resulting strike and legal action left four unions and 14 union officials facing writs totalling $76 million. Individual contracts followed soon after.

Until 1992, Hamersley hadn't minded dealing with unions. Four main unions had coverage — the AMWU, AWU, CFMEU and CEPU. In June 1992, Hamersley hired a worker named Philip Beales. When visited by a shop steward on his first day, Beales indicated that his religious beliefs prevented him joining a union. Hamersley at the time was a closed shop: no non-unionists were permitted on site.

The Beales case was not the first time somebody had refused to join a union. In the past the procedure had been for Hamersley to stand aside the worker concerned on full pay for further negotiations to take place; this resulted in the worker eventually joining the relevant union and being allowed back on site, or being paid off and denied the job.

It was common knowledge that the big Pilbara sites were closed shops (until the smashing of Robe) and had been for well over a decade. The work force had democratically decided that the best way to handle safety and conditions was for everybody to belong to unions, with no exceptions. A lot of struggles had taken place to achieve that.

But when the union representative concerned went to see management to have Beales stood aside until the matter was worked out, past procedure went out the window.

Management decreed that Beales was to start work immediately. The unions voted for action. Within a week, all four unions were on strike and Hamersley was in the WA Industrial Commission trying to have the strike declared illegal.

With the media 100% behind "poor Philip Beales" and the ALP government no help at all, a decision came down in Hamersley's favour.

"Lost production" during the dispute was claimed to equal $76 million, and the company sued the four unions for that amount, directing the writs at individual organisers and stewards as well. The unions eventually caved in and returned to work, as did Beales.

The dispute was a major blow to union power in the Pilbara. Some fight still remains, but major disputes are much more easily isolated.

Upon work resuming, Hamersley did not proceed with the writs. Instead, every time unions tried anything, Hamersley threatened to bring forward the writs, and the unions backed down. This went on for three years.

This put the unions between a rock and a hard place. An industrial fight seemed impossible, but the prospect of the massive fees and long odds of a legal fight was no better.

To some extent, the WA union movement had only itself to blame; debate still rages in some circles over the tactics in the Robe River dispute, where industrial action was wound back in favour of the courts. The resulting defeat proved to be the not-so-thin end of a very damaging wedge.

In the past, the closed shop and good cross-union collaboration had ensured that the whole north-west could be shut down in a really big dispute. With Robe and Hamersley gone, industrial action was far more difficult (but not impossible, as the Weipa experience showed).

However, in 1996, as Hamersley was starting to proceed with the writs (just before they expired), the WA CEPU, having done its own exhaustive research, launched a legal counter-attack.

The union applied to have the action struck out, claiming Hamersley had abused the legal process in letting the matter drag on. The company was caught off guard, and this "striking out" action lasted for many months, buying some valuable time for the unions.

The other three unions were still following legal advice that their case was hopeless. WA CEPU secretary Bill Game was instrumental in convening joint meetings and freely providing legal advice and research (obtained by the CEPU at no small expense) to the other unions. The CEPU's aim was a united defence, in the first place to continue with the "striking out" action, and if that failed, to jointly defend the unions and officials once the case proceeded.

Despite repeated efforts by the CEPU in providing information in good faith, it received nothing much in return. It now appears that the union defence could be fragmented.

According to Game, this failure resulted from the actions of the other three unions, and makes a positive result more difficult for any union. Game's frustration is also due to the CEPU having to bear the greatest financial burden. Five years on, he feels his union is the only one making a serious effort.

The "striking out" action has been rejected, but is being appealed. The CEPU is refusing to give up.

Many other unions seem to have their backs turned or their heads in the sand. Most of the time the case is far from the headlines. Yet the outcome will have far-reaching effects on the Australian union movement.

A win by the CEPU would set a legal precedent against such charges, would be a setback for Rio Tinto and could provide the impetus for strengthening the union presence at Hamersley and other sites in the Pilbara, rebuilding the sort of industrial action that is the only way to win things in the long run.

The consequences of a win by Hamersley hardly bear thinking about — by the time its legal costs are factored in, Rio Tinto could be claiming well over $100 million from the CEPU, CFMEU, AWU and AMWU nationally. Even half that would bankrupt those organisations.

What would be the effects on unionism? Where would workers' rights end up as a result? How long would it take to recover from such a blow?

Meanwhile, the WA CEPU fights valiantly on. This fight must be publicised and supported — financially, legally and, most importantly, industrially. A negative outcome is something we would feel for a long time.