Interview: Terror Australis
Unions: Graeme Beard's Second Dig
Industrial: The Hell of Troy
Organising: Miners Strike Gold
Economics: The Accepted Wisdom
History: Vicious Old Lady
International: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Review: War Unfogged
The Locker Room
Getting Away With Murder
Miners Strike Gold
This time last year at the Roche-operated Coppabella open cut coal mine in Central Queensland there was only one union member in a workforce of around 200. Today, with the workforce hovering around 190, more than 80% have signed with the CFMEU's Mining Division.
At Roche's Commodore open cut coal mine at Millmerran, a couple of hours drive west of Brisbane, the workforce of 35 mineworkers are all employed on individual contracts. However, since last August, more than 30 have joined the union.
This remarkable transformation is the result of a concerted campaign by the CFMEU, in association with the ACTU Organising Unit, to turn the tide of anti-unionism promoted by the Howard Government's anti-worker laws.
The successes at both Coppabella and Millmerran are spearheading a broader campaign throughout NSW and Queensland to unionise new mining operations seeking to use Howard's laws to screen out conscious union members in favour of employees with non-union backgrounds.
In January, the CFMEU conducted an organising blitz in the Blackwater area targeting non-union contracting operations. The drive was organised jointly by the CFMEU's Queensland and national offices, with rank and file delegates joining Board of Management members and organisers from the ACTU's Unit.
The Mining Division's Queensland-based general vice president Reg Coates said "about 90 percent of workers spoken to had joined the Union.
The organising campaign is also reaping results in NSW among contractors in the Northern District and at newly-established mines such as BHP's Dendrobrium mine in the South/West.
The Federal Government has encouraged new operations to employ workers on AWAs and to aggressively challenge union members to abandon collective bargaining for individual contracts.
While the CFMEU has held the line at established operations, it is at new operations and among the growing contracting workforce that employers have trained their guns.
Roche is a perfect example of the new breed in coal that come from predominantly non-union sectors. Unlike traditional contractors who employed workers to supplement the permanent workforce, this breed operates on long term contracts and often provides the entire workforce.
For instance, Roche operates the Coppabella and Commodore open cuts on seven-year contracts and directly employs the entire workforces.
From NSW to Queensland the pattern is the same and the management practices almost identical. Workers are primarily recruited from the non-union hard rock mining industry as well as locals off the land with no previous union involvement.
Their pay and conditions are substantially below general coal industry standards but above what most had earned outside.
Management brought their own cultures and experiences into the coal. This was basically anti-union and often bordered on the old master and servant mentality.
With a 'competitive' cost structure built on lower wages and conditions, companies like Roche have gained an increasing foothold in the coal industry.
Initially, new starters were satisfied with the relative improvements in their positions. For our Union this represented not only a great injustice to these exploited new workers, it also threatened the hard-won standards enjoyed by traditional members.
The challenge facing the CFMEU was to get to these workers and explain their rights. The operative word in the whole organising exercise was help - the Union being there to assist the workers on the ground and to help them build their own collective base.
Situated about 150 kms west of Mackay, the Coppabella mine produces up to five million tonnes of coking coal a year. The operation commenced in 1999 with Roche among a number of contractors at the mine. Within two years Roche was the major contractor and registered a basic greenfields agreement with the Union in February 2001.
However, with a workforce drawn almost exclusively from cleanskins, the Union only emerged as a force after February last year when it sent the ACTU Organiser Unit's Bernie Farrelly to establish contact with the workforce.
Meetings were held in workers homes and at other locations outside the workplace. Gradually a picture emerged of people being dudded.
At Coppabella they work six-days on and three-days off. Day shift is 10.5-hours; night shift is 11-hours; and maintenance workers do 12-hour shifts.
Employees worked 7-hours straight without a crib break.
Investigations showed they were being short-changed in annual leave entitlements.
The company deducted payment for any 'damage' caused from the bonus system, so, in practice, it was worth very little. Management's attitude to any complaints was - "if you don't like it, the gates aren't locked".
There was widespread fear of victimisation if workers took a stand. However, as they became increasingly aware of their rights and how much they were being dudded, they started to join the Union.
Within a short time the rank and file started to see the benefits of a collective stand.
They broke the seven-hour stretch with a new smoko break. They won on annual leave, with each worker receiving an ex gratia payment of $1,000 for each six-months of service in compensation for the shortfall in their annual leave entitlements. For some who were there from the start, this amounted to $5,000.They won the right to vote on roster changes that were previously compulsory.
Importantly, for those at Coppabella and other Roche operations, the company reached agreement with the CFMEU mid-last year that they would respect the right of their employees to be in a Union and that the company would honour its commitments to them. Rank and file members have since elected representatives from each area of the operation to go into negotiations with the company on a new EBA.
There is a very effective functioning Union Lodge in place at Coppabella. The President is Wade Gilmour; Secretary, Fiona O'Brien; Treasurer, Steve Houghton; and the Vice-Presidents are Mick Miller and Tony Bright.
The Commodore open cut is situated about 250 klms south west of Brisbane on the Darling Downs. With a workforce of around 35, it produces 3.2 million tonnes of coal a year for the nearby Millmerran Power Station.
The mine is operated by Roche on a seven-year contract and it commenced production two years ago.
Roche recruited a workforce of cleanskins, none of whom had previous mining experience. The company employed them all on individual contracts and the management at Commodore, like Coppabella, believed in its divine right to rule, making it clear that anyone with complaints was free to go.
Following the success at Coppabella, former Collinsville coal miner Raz Hingston went to Millmerran in August last year to talk with employees and listen to what they had to say. Hingston is part of the ACTU Organising Unit and is funded by the CFMEU.
He hard the same old story. Genuine complaints were summarily dismissed by management and workers,. shackled by AWAs, were not aware of their rights or the basic conditions to which they were entitled.
The Union listened to what they had to say. Their crib room was far too small and they were eating off the floor. They had no toilet facilities.
Having failed to get any action as individuals, they took their first collective by getting a petition together and presenting it to management. And, Presto! They got a proper crib room and toilet facilities. All but four of the workforce joined the Union.
Another of the important issues they then addressed collectively was the company practice requiring them to be on the job 15-minutes before they were due to start work. The new Lodge demanded that they be paid overtime for this early start or they would start at the normal time.
The company relented and the normal time start is now in operation but the new Union miners have put in a claim for back pay for all the early starts they were forced to make. This is estimated to be worth something like $1,600 per worker.
With the AWAs due to expire in August this year, the Commodore mineworkers are already planning for a new collective agreement. Led by their Lodge Executive of President Justin Winter and shift delegates Murray Parker and Col McArthur, the miners are looking forward to a better and fairer future.
The Organising Unit
Coastes says the Union's involvement with the ACTU Organising Unit has been a great success.
"Its function is to get out to where the non-union workers live and engage them. They talk and we listen. We advise them of their rights and leave them to make their own decisions. The underlying philosophy of the organising campaign is to empower the workers at the grass roots level by promoting confidence in them. We make it quite clear that we can't solve their problems for them, but they can and we can help", said Coates.
While the ACTU recruits organisers and trainee organisers through its Unit, the CFMEU funds coal industry activities. It also supports organising drives in non-union areas like Rio Tinto's Pilbara operations.
Coates says rank and file support for the campaign has been crucial.
"The last time our Union was faced with a non-union challenge of this dimension was in the 1930s after the Great Depression. Our Union came through it then and we will come through it again. Coppabella, Millmerran and Blackwater show that given a free choice based on the truth, workers will choose to be part of the Union where together, in a collective, they can protect and advance their rights and interests", he said.
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