AWU betrays Pilbara workers

September 10, 2003


An attempt by trade unionists working in the Pilbara mines in Western Australia to end rivalries between their unions, to present a united face to the mining industry bosses, has been sabotaged by the Australian Workers Union.

At the August 18-21 ACTU congress, two delegates from the newly formed Pilbara Mineworkers Union — Kevin Quill from the Hamersley Iron mine, and Daniel Connors from the BHP mine — explained to congress delegates the process of formation of the PMU and how AWU national officials had undermined this effort at cross-union organisation.

The PMU is an umbrella organisation bringing together members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Transport Workers Union and the AWU.

The PMU was established on the principle that union members in the Pilbara should make the decisions about their future, rather than a union office in Perth or interstate.

With the election of Premier Geoff Gallop's Labor government in 2001, and its partial rolling back of the previous Coalition government's anti-union laws, the PMU began a process of consulting workers about what they wanted to see in a new state award.

However, this process was abruptly halted when the national officials of the AWU secretly negotiated a new federal award to cover Rio Tinto's Hamersley Iron and Robe River mining operations. The new award was announced by the national office of the AWU on July 22.

Quill and Shane Kelly, another PMU representative and Hamersley Iron worker who attended the ACTU congress in Melbourne, expressed their anger and frustration at the AWU leadership to Green Left Weekly. Kelly said Hamersley Iron workers "feel like we've been stabbed in the back by [AWU national secretary] Bill Shorten. They never talked to workers on the ground prior to making the deal. We received an email from management to say that the deal [for a federal AWU award] was already signed, sealed and delivered."

Secret negotiations

The secretiveness of the AWU's negotiations with the bosses leads Quill to believe that "the AWU's been doing this deal all the time that they've been saying they're still with the four unions working on a state award".

The AWU is trumpeting the agreement as a victory for unionism. On July 22, AWU national president Bill Ludwig announced that "this is the first time in 17 years that a union has been able to get an agreement in place in Robe River".

Quill and Kelly have a different view.

The AWU's federal award "mirrors a lot of what's in the workplace agreement [AWA]", said Quill. It also includes things such as unpaid overtime, which were in the non-union section 170LK agreement that was rejected by Hamersley Iron workers in 2002.

On some things, the AWU award is worse than the AWAs. For example, the AWU award offers only a 30% site allowance for living in the inland towns, whereas workers on AWAs get a 35% site allowance. This site allowance is important because the isolation of the inland towns makes the cost of living extremely high.

Kelly pointed out that the AWU's award gives management the right to use "management discretion" to change workers' shifts purely to suit the interests of the companies, and can force people to work more than their 12-hour shift.

The Gallop government's industrial relations reforms put a deadline on the expiry of WA individual workplace agreements, so, in early 2002, Rio Tinto offered its workers a non-union section 170LK agreement.

After the workers rejected it, Rio Tinto began offering AWAs with a 6% pay rise in September 2002. Eventually, around 80% of workers signed AWAs. However, 130 workers refused to sign.

In the meantime, with the help of ACTU organiser Stewart Edwards, a doorknocking blitz was organised in the mining towns, which found people were sick of the old unions squabbling over members. So the Pilbara Mineworkers Union was formed.

The PMU got workers talking about what they wanted in a new award. "People became interested in unions again", said Quill. "They began to get a bit of confidence and trust in us." This was a massive achievement because "a lot of people working here came from non-union backgrounds and they were very sceptical of unions".

The result of the AWU's treachery, said Quill, is that "the people we were winning over [to support unions], we started to lose them again. They told us we told you so, we knew it would happen."


"There's a lot of anger, resentment towards the AWU", said Kelly. "We have a lot of people who have signed AWAs, who are paying into the PMU. When their AWAs expire in three years time, they want a good state award to come back to. A lot of the workforce are newly employed and had to sign AWAs to get jobs."

Quill's opinion is that the AWU "won't get one member through this agreement. They'll lose members over this, but it will affect all of the unions. For the people who are suspicious of unions, this one bad point will cross out 10 good points of unions. We have suffered a tragic setback through this."

Quill pleaded with ACTU congress delegates: "We've answered the call for the unions' return to the Pilbara. Now all we ask is that the union movement look after us and try to help us out." He called on them to take steps to prevent the AWU from going through with the federal award.

However, the AWU officials present refused to concede to any of the PMU delegates' concerns. Shorten told congress delegates that the AWU leadership was not going to sit and watch the "diminishment and disappearance of the AWU in metalliferous mining".

He said that the AWU had worked with other unions at BHP but had chosen not to do so at Rio Tinto "because we hadn't resolved the coverage issues". He added that the AWU leaders "do believe that freedom of association means the right to belong to a union, not to any union".

The ACTU officials didn't allow any specific motion condemning the AWU's actions to be debated on congress floor. ACTU secretary Greg Combet stated firmly that "the ACTU officers will never ever want this forum used as some basis for an attack on one of its own members, one of our own affiliates. We don't care who it is."

The motivation for Rio Tinto's signing of a new federal award with the AWU was explained by a Rio Tinto manager quoted in the PMU leaflet distributed to congress delegates: "The award will mean that the company will be able to largely run their own affairs without being hassled by the unions and the WA industrial relations commission. To do that we had to get close to a union."

Rio Tinto was worried that the PMU was succeeding in rebuilding unionism in the Pilbara and might succeed in winning a state award.

Bosses' attacks

Over the past 20 years, Pilbara workers have suffered repeated attacks by the bosses, particularly from management at Robe River and Hamersley Iron, where union membership came close to being wiped out.

In 1986, Robe River Iron Associates locked out workers for many weeks. In the end, the company agreed to drop all legal action against individual workers in return for the unions agreeing to the majority of work practices that were being demanded by the company. In 1991, Robe River sacked its unionised tug-boat operators and replaced them with non-union labour.

In 1992, Hamersley Iron deliberately provoked a two-week strike when it employed a worker who refused to join the union. Following the dispute, Hamersley Iron eliminated all but one of the union convenors by offering voluntary redundancy packages.

Also in 1992, Robe River sacked 52 workers for participating in an ACTU-called 24-hour strike to protest against the anti-worker actions of Premier Jeff Kennett's government in Victoria. Twenty-nine of these workers had refused to give an unconditional commitment never to attend a stop-work meeting or strike. While waiting for the Industrial Relations Commission to rule on the sackings, Robe River issued notices to evict the workers from their company-owned homes.

It was this dispute which left a legacy of anti-union feeling in the Pilbara. The Robe River workers felt that they had been abandoned by the ACTU after having answered a call to action.

Connors told the ACTU congress that the unions had "managed to stem the tide [at BHP] and we've had some good victories. In the last 12 months, we've won a 20% increase on wages and allowances, and an increase from 9% to 14% in employer superannuation contributions. And more importantly, we've had our hours of work systems set in our award such that day workers work 40 hours and shift workers work 42. That's a major victory for us."

From Green Left Weekly, September 10, 2003.
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