MAC: Mines and Communities

Hamersley unions dig in

Published by MAC on 2003-04-26

Hamersley unions dig in

By Michael Bachelard - The Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia)

26th April 2003

Unions are regaining a foothold at Rio Tinto's Hamersley Iron, 10 years after they were forced out in a violent industrial dispute that left a long legacy of bitterness.

Pilbara-based Rio executives sat down on Tuesday with union officials to discuss a new industrial agreement -- the first such meeting since 1993.

The union is already claiming one victory in its battle for the hearts and minds of 1500 Hamersley Iron workers, saying they have forced the company to change its policy and pay more generous superannuation contributions.

Tuesday's meeting would not have taken place but for new union-friendly West Australian industrial laws that force companies to negotiate collective agreements in good faith. It was also part of a broader campaign by unions to gain influence at Rio by gaining the confidence of its workforce.

In the early 1990s, Rio Tinto (then CRA) crashed through the political and industrial forces arrayed against it to become the first big company to introduce individual contracts to its workforce.

It meant a change of step in productivity performance, rendered the bickering local unions irrelevant, and encouraged other companies to effectively deunionise the state mining industry.

Since then, just seven die-hard Hamersley employees have maintained their insistence on collective bargaining, and their pay and conditions are still covered by an award negotiated in 1987.

Now the unions are back in town. They have rented a meeting room in CRA-built mining town Paraburdoo. A union organiser, Stewart Edward, has moved there full time, funded equally by four unions who have put aside years of infighting to co-operate on this project.

Mr Edward conducted a "blitz" last November, when 25 union workers from around the country doorknocked hundreds of houses and talked to Rio Tinto workers.

That blitz signed up 200 to a new organisation, the Pilbara Mining Workers' Union (PMU), which Mr Edward described as a "community based union". Sympathisers pay voluntary subscriptions to the "development fund"

of the PMU which, because it is not officially registered under workplace legislation, cannot even negotiate for them. As yet, no new member has been signed to an officially registered union.

But embryonic as it is, the new union is claiming a significant victory by forcing Rio Tinto to pay its workers the correct superannuation.

Until now, Rio paid an apparently generous employer contribution of 13 per cent, compared with the 9 per cent legislated minimum.

But Mr Edward said Rio workers were complaining about it, first to the company, and then to him, because Rio's 13 per cent was calculated on base rates only. Under the company's scheme, base rates are supplemented by generous extra allowances.

But a 1994 Tax Office ruling insists that workers be paid super according to their full take-home pay, and, at Hamersley, most would have been much better off with 9 per cent of their full pay than 13 per cent of their base rate.

Mr Edward said he stepped up his campaign in February, issuing flyers and suggesting workers sign form letters of complaint to the tax office. Six weeks later, on April 2, without once referring to the union campaign, the company announced "a new way of calculating company contributions" -- it was to pay 9 per cent on the full pay packet, back-paid. The example provided by the company showed a $500 annual benefit for some workers. The union reckons it's more like $1000.

Mr Edward maintained that the company would not have acted without the union campaign.

But company spokesman Bruce Larson said the campaign had no impact -- the company "was well aware of the issue and had been for some time".

Mr Larson said the union was "as irrelevant as it was 10 years ago," and cited the fact that 85 to 90 per cent of workers had recently signed new individual contracts under the federal system (put up by the company to escape the state Labor Government's new laws).

However, this week's historic meeting represented the start of the union campaign to force the company to negotiate a collective agreement to stand beside the contract stream -- an outcome that is almost certain under the new laws.

For the first time in 10 years, Rio Tinto employees will have a real choice of collective or individual arrangements, and will have a reason to belong to the union.

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