Date: Thu, 16 Oct 97 10:45:18 CDT
Subject: Labor News from Australia/GL Wkly
Labor News from Australia/GL Wkly
id BAA19700; Thu, 16 Oct 1997 01:20:52 -0400
Rio Tinto attacks the right to picket
By James Vassilopoulos,
in Green Left Weekly
#293 (15 October 1997)
Coal & Allied, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, has begun its attempt before the
NSW Supreme Court to severely limit the right to picket in the strike
against the Hunter Valley No 1 mine.
The case began in the courts on October 7, after the Australian Industrial
Relations Commission gave Rio Tinto the go-ato attempt to stop the picket
line from being "obstructive" and potentially to sue 11 union officials
Rio Tinto is concentrating on undermining the picket line in the Hunter
Valley. According to the multinational's barrister, John West QC,
"Protected action [industrial action permitted under the Workplace
Relations Act] does not mean all action. It doesn't include picketing, and
it certainly doesn't include illegal picketing."
If Rio Tinto wins this case, the Hunter Valley strikers will not legally be
able to picket and to stop coal from leaving the mine. A strike in that
situation would be almost completely pointless.
Workers' bargaining position will be severely weakened. The giant company,
which is on track to make profits of $1 billion this year, will gut
conditions and have free rein to sack workers.
In a separate attack on the right to strike, a Victorian Court of Appeal
decision makes it easier for businesses to take common law action against
strikers. This court on October 6 overturned a ruling by a Supreme Court
judge that the right to strike was a basic element of industrial relations.
The case involved a dispute at some 40 labour-hire companies. The decision
means that employers can more easily seek common law damages and other
Rio Tinto's strategy is clear. It wants to break the coal mining union, like
it has broken other unions in the metalliferous mines. By signing enterprise
bargaining agreements at its other mines, it seeks to pick off one mine at a
To break the picket line and get coal moving, Rio Tinto called on the AIRC
to order train drivers in the Public Transport Union to cross the picket
line, unless there are "reasonable safety concerns", which it did on
October 7. The leadership of the PTU has left the train drivers to take
their own position on whether to break the picket line.
The company has built a 60-metre-long fence on either side of the railway
tracks, to stop the picketers from blocking the train and to neutralise
concerns of safety. Now it wants the Supreme Court to rule that the picket
On October 1, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union launched a
72-hour strike across 52 collieries, involving 8000 workers in what appeared
to be major solidarity action for the embattled Hunter miners. The immediate
cause of the strike was Rio Tinto issuing writs against 11 union activists
The strike was called off after only a few hours. The October 3 Financial
Review reported: "CFMEU officials say they aborted the strike at the
request of the NSW Premier, Mr Bob Carr".
Carr convened a meeting between the CFMEU and Rio Tinto the night the strike
began. He had apparently put pressure on Rio Tinto to accept arbitration of
the dispute, but it refused to do so.
A meeting of the CFMEU's mining and energy national executive then decided
to call off the strike after an "intense debate", according to the
Another reason for calling off the strike seems to be that 20 coal companies
where about to claim damages from the CFMEU under section 127 of the
Workplace Relations Act.
The CFMEU has now changed its demand for "consent" arbitration to the Carr
position of compulsory arbitration. The difference is that with consent
arbitration the strike can continue while the AIRC decides the case. This
means the miners would be in a stronger position and that miners could not
be provoked or intimidated.
CFMEU national president John Maitland explained to Green Left Weekly on
September 24, "Compulsory arbitration means that the bargaining period is
terminated, that the protected action is terminated. Our people will have to
resume work and they will be faced with considerable intimidation and
The ACTU is also supporting compulsory arbitration.
The leadership of the CFMEU recommended to the Hunter miners that they
accept compulsory arbitration at a mass meeting on October 9.
It is likely that if the commission arbitrates, miners will lose significant
conditions. However, Rio Tinto's tactics are for the commission not to
decide the dispute, to keep the strike going, isolate the miners and extract
the maximum destruction of conditions.
Rio Tinto wants to be able to hire and fire workers rather than the union
recruiting retrenched miners, to allocate all overtime, to have individual
performance assessment and to use contractors and casual labourers.
In another attack on miners, ARCO on October 1 sacked its entire work force
of 312 at the Gordonstone mine, 50 kilometres west of Emerald, Queensland.
ARCO wants to hire about 100 workers, all on individual contracts.
BHP announced about one month go the retrenching of 800 workers from its NSW
south coast coal mines.
Unless the union movement as a whole develops a plan to fight the
prohibition on solidarity measures, each workplace or industry will have to
fend for itself, which will often result in conditions being lost and
workers being sacked or casualised.
A plan is required to make the penal powers of Reith's industrial
legislation inoperative. A plan like in 1969, where all unions fought
against the jailing of Clarrie O'Shea, the Victorian Tramways Union
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