Why is ACTU playing possum in WA?

January 31, 2001


PERTH — On January 23, ACTU secretary Greg Combet addressed 300 BHP workers at a mass meeting in Port Hedland. Combet told the workers that the ACTU was appealing the January 10 Federal Court ruling against unions in their campaign to prevent BHP's introduction of individual contracts in its Pilbara iron-ore mines. He added that international union support was being pursued. However, Combet ruled out industrial action until after ACTU's appeal against the Federal Court ruling was heard in mid-February. The ACTU cites court injunctions as a barrier to industrial action.

BHP is attempting to put 80% of its workforce on individual contracts so as to implement "cultural changes" — management-speak for getting its workers to work harder for less pay. Only around 40% of workers had signed the contracts when unions won a court order in January last year that prevented more being offered. Despite harassment, the overwhelming majority of workers still on collective agreements want to retain them.

What is preventing the ACTU launching a broad campaign against BHP's use of individual contracts? The mood for industrial action is strong at BHP's Pilbara sites. A campaign of solidarity actions with the Pilbara unionists would have wide resonance — after all, if BHP goes to individual contracts. what hope do thousands of workers at smaller workplaces have of hanging on to collective agreements?

A broad campaign against BHP would provide an opportunity to pressure the WA ALP to oppose individual contracts. Is the Labor-dominated ACTU executive lying low until after the February 10 WA election is over? If this is so, what is to be gained by not campaigning in a state where both major parties support individual contracts? Whatever the election result, the BHP fight will not go away.

[Anthony Benbow is the Democratic Socialist candidate for the seat of Fremantle in the February 10 WA state election. Email <perth@dsp.org.au> for more information.]

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