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Since 11 November 1999, Western Australia's Pilbara region has been the site of an industrial relations struggle in the mining industry that is almost as harsh and rugged as the terrain itself. This might be changing right now with the emergence of new forms of unionism. The outcome will reflect just what it is that local workers and communities are thinking, hoping, fearing about their jobs, their bosses - and unions.
The players - or at least those on one side - have been as powerful as they come, the two biggest resource companies on earth, BHP-Billiton and Rio Tinto, sitting on one of the biggest ore bodies on the planet. On the other side are what started as either a divided set of unions or non-union workforces.
News about industrial relations and unionism from the 'new economy' of services, finance, IT and the like occupies more and more of the attention of union strategists and academic researchers alike. But for the men and women working in and around the iron ore mines and for their families and their communities, this is where the only industrial relations they know - the daily world of work and struggle - is played out.
The Symbolic Power of the Pilbara
Lots of readers of Workers Online will know that the Pilbara has real symbolic clout when we think about the last few years of industrial relations in Australia. For most of the 1990s, BHP Iron Ore was the only unionised mining site in the Pilbara. Yet this area had once been a union heartland. Effective unionism was blown away, first at Robe River in one of the first and biggest disputes with new anti-union bosses in the 1980s and then for it all to be repeated, more or less, at Hamersley Iron, in the early 1990s. These were major, well-publicised setbacks for unions, right up there with Dollar Sweets, Mudginberri and SEQEB. So, turning things around in the Pilbara would mean a lot for those there and for a wider union audience.
Round one, which I reported on last year in Workers Online, pitted part of the BHP-Billiton empire, BHP Iron Ore, against a unionised workforce. Determined, as they put it, to remove 'the need to negotiate change with union representatives', the management offered individual contracts to its workers. Over the summer of 1999-2000, however, local union activists and ACTU officials drew on new organising strategies and - most important of all - they set out to bury the inter-union fighting that had nearly buried them in the months before this. Members of the five unions on the BHPIO sites worked together, funded by their State branches and co-ordinated by ACTU Organising Centre staff.
United from below and working as one union, just over half of the workforce stayed loyal to the unions and, two years after the conflict began, they won a new collective award. This, and the changed State legislation in effect killing off Western Australian Workplace Agreements (or 'woppas' as the union loyalists call them), meant that BHPIO had to look for a new strategy. So, the management is now attempting to shift its workforce onto Australian Workplace Agreements - but it doesn't look too promising for the company just yet. What happens there will probably be round three of the current Pilbara blue.
Rio Tinto Revert To Form
But this story is mostly about round two: what happened earlier this year when the other big boy on the block, Rio Tinto, tried to find its own way out of the problem that was posed by the Labor government getting set to introduce its new industrial relations legislation.
Rio Tinto is now the major player in Robe River and the owner of Hamersley Iron, as well as another Pilbara operation, Dampier Salt. All these companies have long been run under individual contracts.
The Hamersley Iron mining operations are massive - big, and growing, open-cuts around the mining towns of Tom Price and Paraburdoo linked by the company's railways to the port at Dampier. The use of contractors and the employment of many workers on a FIFO (fly-in/fly-out) basis, meaning that the population of the mining towns is not getting any bigger and resources are thinning out too. The union defeats in the past meant that these had become not just non-union worksites but also non-union towns. The unions were just about invisible.
Yet, there was a chance, just a chance, with the end of the woppa regime that unions might be able to make a re-appearance. Rio's answer to the end of this system seemed simple enough. It would ballot its workers on shifting away from individual contracts to another form of non-union agreement, the federal, collective agreements known as 170LK's.
Unions Win the Race Against Time
The unions had little time, and less presence, to run a campaign against this but they did get onto the ground in most of the towns in what they themselves called 'Rio Tinto territory'. The union campaign was organised as the BHPIO drive had been, using activists as much as possible, organising one-on-ones and small meetings in homes and pubs.
On 5 April this year, the result of the ballot was released. In all but one of Rio's sites, workers voted 'no' to the proposed LK. This was an amazing result after years of non-unionism and pretty sophisticated HR management at Rio. In the words of one experienced journalist, it was 'head-in-the-hands, staring-at-the-floor kind of shock' (Michael Bachelard in Weekend Australian, 6-7 April 2002).
So, how can this be explained? Why were so many workers - almost all of them non-unionists - so fed up? And what did this mean for any hope of union renewal? There was one simple way to find out - ask the workers themselves. In the middle of the year, I ran some focus groups, concentrating on Hamersley Iron workers, to do just that.
There are many issues here that will be familiar to workers in sorts of places and industries. The three big issues were all to do with management style and process: how the company's fair treatment process worked (or didn't work); the annual assessment systems; and repeated shift changes. Workers were fed up with the bureaucracy of these processes: at best, 'nothing happens', said one; they're 'designed to wear you down', said another. On the mines, changes to shift arrangements and rosters had plenty of workers riled up: they 'changed shifts more than undies'.
The issues were not just about work in itself. The presence (and rapid turnover) of HR whizzes that wouldn't know ore from clay was also a common complaint. And so too was the impact of mining companies' policies on local community life - as population fell, fewer locals were employed and local social life and facilities got worse.
The discontent was not mainly about money and hours, it was more, as one worker summed it up, about 'the way they treat you'. Many workers put it like this: Despite the rhetoric, key players in the companies were - quite literally saying - to any disgruntled workers: 'if you don't like it, you can fuck off'.
This all sounds like fertile ground for unionism doesn't it? Maybe not.
Almost all the workers I spoke to were adamant that the ballot was a vote of no confidence in Hamersley Iron - only. It was not a vote for unionisation. So what did they want? Many said things like this: 'respect'; to have 'a say in your own life' and 'to be taken seriously'.
Union Reservations Remain
These workers have great reservations about unions. For some workers this was simply disbelief that unions would be able to get into a Rio company. For others it was fear of the consequences - fear of being seen to be pro-union, far less actually taking any action.
Most of all, it was because of how they saw the past - the 'old days' - in the Pilbara and how unions had operated in recent memory. Their key fears were: unjustifiable strikes; 'outside' union officials bossing them; and the likelihood of being left in the lurch by unions once other things became more pressing. This was what most people thought was the upshot of the disputes at Robe River.
The biggest factor - mentioned by every group I spoke with - was fear of inter-union rivalry or of one union trying to swallow them all up from down in Perth or over in the east.
The message for unions trying to get back into the game at Rio was crystal clear. The unions must operate as a single unit, based on the workers themselves, not imposed from outside. This idea of a unified union structure just seemed self-evident; it seemed like common sense. Traditional structures or control by any one existing union was plainly unacceptable, unthinkable in fact, to the focus group participants.
The message could not have been clearer. The old days of demarcation or being pawns in wider national union games would have to end:
ï¿½ 'One union'd be the go to stop that sort of shit [demarcation disputes]; one union is what you want...if you formed into one union, you're a power to be reckoned with'.
ï¿½ 'There used to be more infighting than anything else and among a lot of people there would be that sort of concern'.
ï¿½ 'We spent year and years in the unions here in the Pilbara fighting each other...if the union was ever to come back here, it would need to be an industry union, everybody in the industry represented by the one union'.
If it was clear enough what they did not want, then what about what they did want? Union renewal would have to mean a new kind of unionism:
ï¿½ 'If we had a union it would be a mining union'; 'that's what we need - one union for the whole lot ... the people are looking for something new'.
ï¿½ 'For the unions ever to be able to get a foothold again within Hamersley Iron again or Dampier Salt, they've got to be seen to be working together ... one union'.
ï¿½ 'We don't need, like in the past, nine unions; why not just have one union'.
Workers who have worked for a long time under a non-union regime and who have then thought their way through to opposing what a big company puts to them are not the sort of people who will then hand their working lives over to a union official to take of things for them. So, what they thought a union would look like was that it would be built by and for workers themselves: 'we tell the unions what we want' because 'unions are people'.
What this boils down to across many of the Rio sites and certainly at Hamersley Iron is that a majority of the workers have told the company that the boss has stuffed up. From a workers' point of view, what matters now is that the unions themselves don't make a mess of it. It is clear, as it so often is, that hostility to a company's management only provides a starting point; it does not mean these workers will necessarily be won over to unionism.
How that plays out will depend in very large part on the willingness of union leaders and their supporters to listen genuinely to what workers are saying. The message is that they have to be fair dinkum about the much stated belief in grassroots campaigning, mobilisation and giving a say over their lives back to working people and their families.
Bradon Ellem, Work & Organisational Studies
The University of Sydney
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