Unresolved questions at Weipa

December 5, 1995

By Jennifer Thompson After seven weeks of strike action against CRA-owned mining company Comalco's refusal to negotiate a collective enterprise agreement, and its generous pay offers to workers who sign individual staff contracts at its bauxite mine and kaolin plant at Weipa, workers voted on November 29 to return to work. It was a difficult decision Nigel Gould, CFMEU lodge secretary, told Green Left Weekly, but the workers were concerned that unless work was resumed the Industrial Relations Commission would not hand down a favourable decision. The company had also threatened to take out common law damages writs against the strikers. "We were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea", Gould said, adding that the workers were "99.9% sure" of winning the case because "Bob Hawke got every witness [Comalco] put up to say that we work equally as well as them". On November 21, the IRC ruled in favour of the right to bargain collectively, union representation and reaffirmed the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. It also ordered Comalco to pay an 8% wage rise to award workers, backdated to March 1, 1994. Gould confirmed that Comalco had agreed to drop the Supreme Court damages action against strikers and unions, and that the charges against five people arrested on the picket line (which will be heard on January 22) would probably be dropped. The commission, which has adjourned until December 11, has heard arguments about whether unionisation is an impediment to the productivity improvements companies are demanding from workers, and where the IRC should draw the line on workers' — including those on individual contract — right to be represented by a union. In her trip north, ACTU president-elect Jennie George said she was confident that the IRC would order Comalco to pay award workers and contract workers equal wages for equal work. Gould said that if the IRC didn't force Comalco to do this unions would continue their campaign. "We've got the full commitment of the ACTU CRA-disputes committee, and we are ready to go into action immediately", he said, adding that there could be another national strike. Referring to a solidarity letter from a worker at CRA's Hamersley Iron mine where all but a few workers had transferred to individual staff contracts, Gould said, "We've seen what happened there. You don't even know how much the guy or girl next to you is getting, even though you do the same work." Commenting on Hamersley Iron's promise to new workers who had to sign an individual contract of a $15,000 pay rise — which they still haven't received — Gould said it was a case of "the big offers at first, and all of a sudden the wage goes down". Gould said he wasn't anticipating any conflict with staff workers after the return to work at Weipa. He said that there would be "100 people signing back over [to the award system] when we get the same conditions from airfares to superannuation to health benefits". Already a couple of "staffies" had ended their contracts. Russell Rowse, who had already changed back, appeared for the unions in the IRC to explain that award workers did the same work as he had on staff. Still unresolved is which union or unions will have the right to represent members in Weipa. The Australian Workers Union is the sole union with coverage at Weipa — a right it gained with CRA's support. This is being disputed by other unions, in particular the mining division of the CFMEU. Gould said that in an ACTU-sponsored vote earlier this year, 98% said they wanted CFMEU coverage. He said that the CFMEU would continue its campaign "to get back our right of representation". The ACTU executive is reportedly meeting to discuss union representation on December 13.

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